This year is the 100th anniversary of what is now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the organization founded by Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950). Woodson is the founder of Negro History Week, which he created in 1926. It’s officially been known as Black History Month since 1976.
Woodson had many assistants in his long career. Perhaps his most famous was a young and relatively unknown poet, looking for a job. His name was Langston Hughes (1902-1967), the subject of a recent Google Doodle.
I like the story of their interaction because it shows black historical figures as simply working people trying to find their way. It’s a rarely told, or referenced, story about Woodson and Hughes. Perhaps more important, it’s a story about a young person trying out his first real job, and an older person’s patience with him.
The story goes like this:
In 1924, two years before Woodson started Negro History Week, Hughes, struggling against being a vagabond, found a way to escape his dead-end jobs in a Washington, D.C., laundry and in an oyster house. A Columbia University dropout and a restless soul, he was now going to try his hand at an actual career opportunity: working for Carter G. Woodson, the always-serious, always-busy historian. Hughes had an opportunity to take root at the base of black American history’s tree, with a man who held a Harvard Ph.D.!
“Woodson worked Hughes hard,” wrote Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad in The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. 1: 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America, the first volume of Rampersad’s two-volume masterwork on Hughes.
Rampersad reconstructs this brief time period between Woodson and Hughes, who, at 22, was less than half his boss’s age:
Langston fired the furnace early in the morning, dusted the furniture, sorted mail, answered some pieces himself, wrapped and mailed books, banked the furnace at night, and, when his employer was away, supervised the entire office.
These were his secondary duties. His main job was to help in the preparation of Woodson’s gargantuan current project, Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830 [.pdf], a list of some thirty thousand persons that was scheduled for publication that year. Hughes’s task was to arrange all the names in alphabetical order, then to check the list through all of the various stages of publication.
Rampersad described the 50-year-old Woodson as a “fatherly employer” who was difficult, but not with his staff.
The boss caught his employees, including Hughes, cornered up in a card game. Instead of firing them, a quiet-but-firm Woodson laid down the law about the responsibilities they had and their importance to the Negro race.
Hughes responded to this work environment the way someone 22 would: He chafed at the tedium and yearned for adventure. This job was slowing him down.
“Although I realized what a fine contribution Dr. Woodson was making to the Negro people and America, I personally didn’t like the work I had to do. Besides, it hurt my eyes,” he wrote in the first volume of his two autobiographies, The Big Sea.
Hughes decided that he just wanted a way to make money, not a post. So he returned to his working-class gigs. His first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was waiting for him to finish it.
Woodson and Hughes parted amicably.
Woodson had already fought for his independence. He had established, and maintained, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History because he was stubborn and self-determining. Those were traits that the much younger Hughes already exhibited. So for Hughes, it was time to seize his freedom by going back to it.
While the historian would fight to keep the association alive, the artist would travel the world, writing numerous poetry collections, plays and short stories and even, briefly, becoming a Spanish Civil War correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American.
This story may only make it marginally into the larger, much more significant black history that stars Woodson and Hughes. Perhaps it’s just a hiccup in the ASALH’s long journey and in Hughes’ biographies. But I think it’s significant because it’s about the intersection of two very different people, a young man and a middle-aged man, who were independent black thinkers: unafraid to set their own determined paths, each with his own goals and objectives, damning all torpedoes.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.