The Next Page / Where Langston Hughes fueled his muse: Cleveland

Born 110 years ago, the poet laureate of black Americans is indelibly linked with Harlem. But as Ervin Dyer found, Hughes' literary sense was shaped in Pittsburgh's mirror city on Lake Erie.

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The home at 2266 86th St. is just another three-story home in the Fairfax section of Cleveland. It comes near the end of a long block and is more forlorn than many of the well-tended houses in this struggling neighborhood. Its once wooden frame is wrapped in brown awnings and a dull beige aluminum, which is stained and peeling away. Recently sold through foreclosure, the home, 120 years old, is a shell of its former self.

But it's not so much the structure, but the ghost of who lived in this old and ordinary home that makes this withering place a shrine -- at least for me, a writer and lover of poetry who's come to this house in search of my literary hero: Langston Hughes.

The great American writer -- called the poet laureate of black Americans -- lived in this city by the lake from about 1916 to 1920. The first day of February marked the 110th anniversary of his birth. Though raised in humble beginnings in Joplin, Mo., he rose to become a celebrated poet and writer. He was known especially for his verse -- he wrote more than 800 poems -- and commitment to a message that provided uplift to the souls of black folks.

Mostly, we think of Hughes as being connected to Harlem. After all, he chose the New York community as his spiritual home and creative haven. But before Harlem, there was Cleveland and in many respects, this old city is the birthplace of his poetry: It was here he was inspired by Carl Sandburg, nurtured by English teachers who encouraged his first published pieces. Not long after high school graduation, he boarded a train to Mexico to visit his father. In his passage through middle America, he stared at the muddy Mississippi, penning his classic poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

In Cleveland, my goal was to walk where he walked and uncover Hughes' connection to this grand American city.

Langston Hughes lived at 2266 86th St. in about 1917. He boarded in the attic and muddled through life at this address alone, without his mother and stepfather, who at the time had returned to Chicago to work. In his autobiography, "The Big Sea," Hughes recalled the difficult life on the third floor. "I couldn't afford to eat in a restaurant and the only thing I knew how to cook myself in the kitchen of the house where I roomed was rice, which I boiled to a paste. Rice and hot dogs, rice and hot dogs, every night for dinner. Then I read myself to sleep."

Life in this neighborhood was rapidly being stuffed with what Hughes called "a great dark tide" of black migrants coming from the South to find jobs in the city's steel mills and as maids. Despite the high rents and crowded poverty -- Hughes once lamented his whole time in Cleveland was spent living in basements or attics -- life was not all bitter. The young man, already a starving artist, did live near the green acres of Wade Park, a symphony hall, and recalled the joy of spring days when brown girls from the South promenaded up and down Central Avenue, a nearby thoroughfare.

But it was at 2266, where Hughes used the words of Nietzsche and Edna Ferber as lullabies and where probably many pieces of his dreams to be a world traveler and writer first fluttered into place. Hughes attended Central High School.

The building he roamed on 55th Street has been razed. But in the halls of Central, the first free public high school west of the Alleghenies and one of the first to enroll black students before the Civil War, he seemed a popular and involved student. To view his time at Central is to get a glimpse of the emerging interests that would shape the contours of his life.

Lang, as Hughes was called in high school, was a skinny kid with "soulful eyes" and velvet-black hair. Even then he showed an early passion to be a man of letters. One of his first published poems was in the Belfry Owl, a school magazine. He also was editor of the school's annual and was class poet. He remembered the tutelage of 10th-grade English teacher Ethel Weimer. She guided her students to the "good poetry" of Sandburg and by the time Hughes had finished high school, inspired by Sandburg and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, he had written poems that were later published in national magazines. In a 1957 letter, written while living in Harlem, Hughes said that his "most valuable guidance" in writing came in high school.

Central High proved to be a busy and cosmopolitan haven for Lang. The Polish, Russian and Jewish immigrants were his classmates and friends. He often strolled the halls in his school sweater full of club pins and sport letters. Lang ran track for three years; was secretary of the French club (perhaps seeding his desire to live in Paris); and was treasurer of the garden club (perhaps joining to supplement his meals of pasty rice with fresh tomatoes). His 1920 yearbook graduation photo shows him in high-collar shirt, a wide tie and a pleasant face, with just a hint of a smile.

I stumbled into Hughes' past here almost by accident. Visiting Cleveland, I thought I'd only have opportunity to stroll past the high school Hughes attended. Unfamiliar with the city, I called the Hough branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Hough, once a social mosaic of immigrants, is now a predominately black neighborhood and not too far from where a teenage Langston strolled.

I called not knowing that the school building was now gone, and was hoping to talk to a real live person and get detailed directions so as not to be lost in the city. I received a greater gift.

At Hough, I was put in touch with the quiet-spoken library manager, William Bradford. First, he connected me to an archivist at the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Of course, Cleveland considers Hughes a literary son and has a sizable collection of books, letters and other personal papers that chronicle Hughes' relationship with the city.

Second, Mr. Bradford volunteered to spend the next afternoon touring me around East Cleveland, riding me past sites that were part of Hughes' past. A plan in place, off I went: In search of Langston Hughes.

Downtown, the library archivist Ann Marie Wieland is pleasant. She has a box and folders of letters and memorabilia that establishes Hughes had a longstanding relationship with the Cleveland Public Library. Much of it is revealed through his correspondence with Effie L. Power, a Cleveland firebrand who was part of a national effort heralding that libraries should be child friendly.

It is not known when she met and befriended Hughes. It could have happened at Cleveland's Quincy branch. A buff-brick two-story building that sat on the corner of 2390 79th St., Quincy served the neighborhood's mostly black residents and held summer reading clubs. Hughes could have walked to the library from his home. Their correspondence comes in streams and reveals that Power was impressed with Hughes.

One of the letters, dated in the winter of 1932, comes during a time when Hughes' reputation as a poet is growing and he's touring black colleges in the South. At one visit, Hughes makes a side trip to rural grammar schools near Huntsville, Ala. At one of the schools, he writes Ms. Power that 400 Negro children are singing spirituals with "such elemental emotion that after listening to the songs one could scarcely stand any more."

It was Ms. Power who encouraged Hughes to write a book of poems for children, leading the poet to pen "The Dream Keepers."

She wrote the introduction, which the publisher Knopf shared with Hughes in correspondence. But she also offered her literary advice: "Personally, while I want some good jazz in the poetry, I do not want the book to present too modern an appearance. I hope you will agree with me."

Hughes was interested in the project as he was in any book that "will instill race pride and a sense of beauty." Ms. Power knew this. And later, in 1932, when the American Library Association asked Ms. Power for her wisdom on who might be able to write an article on the book needs of the Negro children of the South, she suggested Hughes.

In April 1932, as he was traveling through Texas on a lecture series, Hughes wrote Ms. Power at 3 in the morning, making final revisions and thanking Ms. Power for her suggested changes. Hughes' final article to the library association challenged librarians to provide books that "Negro parents and teachers can read to their children without hesitancy as to the psychological effect on the growing mind."

America's black children, he wrote, were "in pressing need of books that will give them back their own souls. They do not know the beauty they possess."

By now, Hughes had traveled to South America, Africa and Europe and throughout the American South. He was a published author and gaining a national reputation, but he often returned to Cleveland.

There's evidence that Hughes visited Cleveland's main branch just before the publication of "The Dream Keepers."

In the winter of 1931, he visited the downtown's children department, leaving a poem, in his swooping penmanship, on page 36 in the daybook, an informal log kept by staff.

You have tomorrow
Bright before us
Like a flame

A night-gone thing
A sun-down name

And dawn today
Broad arch
Above the road we came

We march.

Immediately after his words, a librarian scribbles this note: "Langston Hughes, the Negro poet visited our room this morning and wrote the above poem in our daybook -- He is very modest + naive + most pleased with a new idea of getting out a book of his poems for children."

There are personal memories, too. Ms. Wieland escorts me to the Cleveland Library Special Collections Department. I meet Stacie Brisker. Ms. Brisker's mother, Flossie Richmond, had an encounter with Hughes while she was a student in the 1960s at Ohio's Central State University.

Her mother, she recalls, told her Hughes was quiet and not very tall, a nice man who was willing to work with students. Some 40 years earlier, in the late 1920s, Ms. Brisker's godmother also met Hughes at Central High School, where just back from Paris, he was touring schools and talking to the students. As reams of sunlight filled the ornate room, I held first editions of "The Weary Blues," published in 1929; "Dream Keepers and Other Poems," his book for children, published in 1945, and dreamed Hughes had gifted them to me.

At Central, where he read the stories of Guy de Maupaasant in French, Hughes was inspired to "really want to be a writer and write stories about Negroes, so true that people in far-away lands would read them -- even after I was dead."

Hughes graduated from Central High on June 6, 1920, and was off to Mexico within a month. Finally, he would begin the wandering that would have him writing those stories.

Correction/Clarification: (Published February 19, 2012) In last Sunday's Next Page essay on Langston Hughes, the last name of Cleveland librarian Stacie Brisker was misspelled. Also, Ms. Brisker's godmother met Langston Hughes at Central High School, not Central State

Ervin Dyer, a former Post-Gazette staff writer, is a senior editor at the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt Magazine and a graduate student in Pitt's Department of Sociology ( ).


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