As a Black woman who has always written ever since she was a little girl, I can’t remember a time where I didn’t know about writer, poet, and activist James Mercer Langston Hughes. His presence has loomed large in my consciousness ever since elementary school, when I was first introduced to his work.
In those days, my life revolved around the fictional characters I created and the stirring story lines I starred them in—they served as a way to steady myself through the calamities, trauma, and grief that roared through my childhood. In committing the lyrical lines of “Mother to Son” to memory, I had an anchor of creative strength, resilience, and hope. Reading Hughes and knowing him through his poems, essays, and journalism gave me something to aspire to, and I’ve looked to him for guidance ever since. His writings showed me the possibilities of what my art could one day be.
Hughes became famous in the 1920s for poems like “I, Too” and my favorite, “Mother to Son.” He lived in New York from 1947 to 1967, where he pioneered the Harlem Renaissance along with contemporaries like Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. Du Bois. Hughes’s work primarily focused on the lives of working-class Black Americans—a revolutionary act at the time.
In 2018, I picked up his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, which chronicles his travels, family troubles, and struggles with financial instability as a Black writer during the early 20th century. Reading it, I learned more about him than I had in my entire life and subsequently felt closer to him than ever. Hughes was witty, funny, insightful, and an avid traveler. And his roots were very, undeniably Midwestern: He was born in Joplin, Missouri, and later spent five of his teenage years living in Cleveland.
Before I arrived in Cleveland, I wasn’t sure what I’d find here relating to Hughes. I was filled with an anticipation that I couldn’t quiet. I drank a cup of tea in my hotel room to calm the waves of nervousness.
On my first full day in town, I headed to the Western Reserve Historical Society’s archival library, housed inside of the Cleveland History Center. There, in the quiet of a brightly lit room, I read multiple handwritten letters from Hughes from all over the world. Meticulously dated and addressed on his own custom letterhead, each note felt like a mini time capsule.
After years of hungering to learn more about Hughes’s life beyond the surface details I’d gathered as a young reader, being at the Cleveland History Center felt like a pinnacle of achievement. But my quest for answers was only just beginning. And at the top of the list of places I wanted to visit was seeing where Hughes once lived: the home he’d slept and dreamed in during those five years in Cleveland. Whisked away from the library in an Uber, I was on my way.
When I arrived at Hughes’s old home in East Cleveland (a historically Black part of town), the first thing I noticed was that there was no marker. There was no sign. There was nothing to denote that this was the home where Hughes lived as a child.
I walked eight steps to get to the front door of the cream-colored house with burgundy accents. At the very top of the home is a rectangular window: the attic. Hughes lived there, paying rent and eating modest meals from the hot plate he had in his room. One meal he would often eat was hot dogs and rice cooked until it congealed into a paste.
There were numerous times over the years when the home, currently unoccupied, fell into disrepair. It was once even almost demolished by the city of Cleveland. Local librarian and historian Christopher Busta-Peck, who is committed to preserving places of historical significance throughout the city, is said to have played a major role in saving the home. I stood in front of it and felt a sense of awe wash over me. I thought of Hughes, and imagined him stumbling up those eight steps after a long day of school, his bag hanging heavy on his back, filled with novels and poetry books.
During his childhood in Cleveland, Hughes attended Central High School, once located at East 40th between Central and Cedar. It’s not possible to visit Central High anymore because the original construction was torn down in 1952, though a “new” school building was built over it during the same year. (That building is now abandoned, though visitors can peer at it from a distance.) Hughes’s first pieces of published work were created at Central High and appeared in the student literary journal, The Monthly. Central High’s existence is vital beyond simply being a place where Hughes found creative refuge. It was also where he was encouraged, nurtured, and mentored in his creative interests most notably by his teacher Helen Maria Chesnutt, a Black woman.
Before the Civil War, Central High exclusively enrolled Black students. By the 1930s, the vast majority of the student body were still Black students. Other than Hughes, Central High counts hordes of prominent Black people among their graduates, such as the first Black elected school board member Mary B. Martin, as well as John Green, Cleveland’s first Black elected official. The school opened in 1846 near Euclid Avenue and East Ninth Street, with various locations—finding proper funding for public schools being a major reason why—before ending where it remains now on East 40th.
Karamu House is located in the Fairfax neighborhood of East Cleveland, just a few minutes away by car from Hughes’s former home. There, I met current president and chief executive officer Tony F. Sias at the front entrance. As he walked me through the building, it suddenly struck me that I was in a place that was once a creative home for Hughes.
Karamu House is the country’s oldest theater focused on Black-producing theater. In 1915, founders Rowena and Russell Jelliffe opened a settlement house (an organization that provided free social services) called The Roaring Third. The Jeliffes wanted to create an environment where people of different cultural and socioeconomic background could come together and share common interests—and they felt like the arts were the perfect medium through which to achieve that goal. Two years later, they transformed The Roaring Third into The Playhouse Settlement.
In 1941, the Jeliffe’s renamed the building “Karamu House.” Karamu means “a place of joyful gathering” in Swahili, which they felt not only denoted the theater’s role in the community as a place where people could meet and perform, but also highlighted the Black cultural influence that was integral to the theater’s identity.
When Hughes was a teen attending Central High, he often frequented Karamu House. At the time, it was one of the only places in the U.S. that produced works by playwrights of color—it’s here where some of his first plays were written, produced, and shown to audiences.
“It is a cultural shame that a great country like America, with twenty million people of color, has no primarily serious colored theatre,” Hughes said in 1961. “There isn’t. Karamu is the very nearest thing to it. My feeling is not only should a Negro theatre, if we want to use that term, do plays by and about Negroes, but it should do plays slanted toward the community in which it exists.”
Around the time that Karamu House was celebrating its centennial, it experienced a number of challenges, including a declining budget, a dip in attendance numbers, and a revocation of its tax exempt status. But thanks to the rallying support of the community, Karamu House now says its experiencing a “renaissance of sorts.”
Today, the playhouse remains a place of vital importance for Black artists and Black theatrical productions in Cleveland, in keeping with Hughes’s and the Jeliffes’ original vision. This October, Karamu House will run a regional premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning production, Clyde’s.
I ended my journey in Cleveland back where I started: a library, albeit a different one—the Langston Hughes branch of the Cleveland Public Library. It seemed like a ceremonious, fitting ending, a full circle of discovery, to end within a room full of books.
The 8,370-square-foot, vaulted ceiling library opened in 1998. Outside of the library, there’s a historical marker (commissioned by the state of Ohio) detailing biographical information about Hughes. Inside, visitors can find a collection of Hughes artifacts. Arranged carefully within a glass case located towards the back of the library are letters he wrote to the Cleveland Public Library, a signed yearbook from Central High, and hardware from the house he lived in East Cleveland.
Pouring into Hughes’s legacy in Cleveland hadn’t satiated me. It had only succeeded, instead, in piquing my interest, fueling my hunger to unearth more jewels concerning his creative journey. I don’t know all that I will find as I continue to dig and know Hughes more for myself. But taking these initial steps filled me with purpose—and certainty about how gratifying it can be to explore unanswered questions.