The University of Kansas

Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Books on a shelf

Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

That’s Distinctive!: Langston Hughes

February 3rd, 2023

Check the blog each Friday for a new “That’s Distinctive!” post. I created the series because I genuinely believe there is something in our collections for everyone, whether you’re writing a paper or just want to have a look. “That’s Distinctive!” will provide a more lighthearted glimpse into the diverse and unique materials at Spencer – including items that many people may not realize the library holds. If you have suggested topics for a future item feature or questions about the collections, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

This week “That’s Distinctive!” celebrates Langston Hughes, whose 122nd birthday was on February 1st. (Several years ago, former Kansas Poet Laureate and Washburn University English Professor Eric McHenry discovered that Hughes was likely born in 1901 and not 1902, as had long been thought. McHenry’s discovery was covered by The New York Times in 2018.) An African American poet and social activist born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was “one of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry [and] is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance” (per the Wikipedia article about him). In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote non-fiction, plays, and short stories, and he even had a column in The Chicago Defender.

In honor of Hughes’s birthday, this week I am highlighting a small taste of the poems in his book The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. As you can see, some pages in the book include sketches in addition to the poems.

Two-page spread of off-white paper with black text and four small illustrations.
The title page of Langston Hughes’s book The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. Call Number: RH C7466. Click image to enlarge.
Black text with a black-and-white pen-and-ink sketch above. The illustration includes various things including flowers in a vase, a book, and a house.
The poem “The Dream Keeper” by Langston Hughes, in The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. Call Number: RH C7466. Click image to enlarge.
Two-page spread of black text with three black-and-white pen-and-ink sketches, two of flowers and one of a bird.
The poems “Autumn Thought” and “Dreams” by Langston Hughes, in The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. Call Number: RH C7466. Click image to enlarge.

Along with this book, Spencer also holds many other books and manuscripts by Hughes; The Life of Langston Hughes, a biography by Arnold Rampersad (Call Number: RH C7898); and some photos. You can find all of these sources by searching the KU Libraries online catalog and Spencer’s finding aids. You can also view an online exhibit on Hughes curated by former Kansas Collection Curator Sherry Williams.

Though he was born in Missouri, Hughes often claimed to be a Kansan because he grew up in the Lawrence and Topeka areas. Over the years, Lawrence has shown its appreciation for Hughes with a number of plaques around town and an elementary school named in his honor, as well as a library in one of his childhood schools (Pinckney Elementary). Other landmarks connected to Hughes in Lawrence include the church he attended, the library he frequented, and the graves of his grandparents. Hughes later returned to Lawrence and spoke on KU’s campus three times: in 1932, 1958, and 1965. Visitors to Spencer’s North Gallery can listen to a selection of audio clips from his 1965 visit, which include Hughes reading his poetry and sharing some of his reminiscences about his youth in Kansas.

Tiffany McIntosh
Public Services

Langston Hughes in Lawrence, Kansas

January 30th, 2017

In honor of Langston Hughes’s birthday on February 1, we remember his time in Lawrence:

Langston Hughes spent his early boyhood in Lawrence, Kansas. In a presentation at the University of Kansas in 1965 he recalled: “The first place I remember is Lawrence, right here. And the specific street is Alabama Street. And then we moved north, we moved to New York Street shortly thereafter. The first church I remember is the A.M.E. Church on the corner of Ninth, I guess it is, and New York. That is where I went to Sunday School, where I almost became converted, which I tell about in The Big Sea, my autobiography.”

Title page of The Big Sea, by Langston Hughes (first edition, 1940).
Hughes signed this copy for the University of Kansas. Call number RH C7422.
Click image to enlarge.

Hughes lived with his maternal grandmother, Mary Sampson Patterson Leary Langston, at 732 Alabama Street. The house does not exist today. His grandmother was the widow of one of the men killed with John Brown at Harpers Ferry (Lewis Sheridan Leary), and later married Hughes’s grandfather, the ardent abolitionist Charles Howard Langston.

Langston’s years in Lawrence with his grandmother were lonely and frugal. In 1909 he entered the second grade at Pinckney School, having started school in Topeka, KS, while living briefly with his mother. He was placed with other African American children in a separate room for his education. At various times between 1909 and 1915 Langston and his grandmother lived with friends James W. and Mary Reed at 731 New York Street. Hughes also attended New York School, and Central School, where he was reportedly a good student. Langston lived with the Reeds after his grandmother’s death in March 1915, and left Lawrence to join his mother in Illinois later in the year.

Photograph of Langston Hughes. Call number RH PH P2790.
Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

As he writes in The Big Sea:

“The ideas for my first novel had been in my head for a long time. I wanted to write about a typical Negro family in the Middle West, about people like those I had known in Kansas. But mine was not a typical Negro family. My grandmother never took in washing or worked in service or went much to church. She had lived in Oberlin and spoke perfect English, without a trace of dialect. She looked like an Indian. My mother was a newspaper woman and a stenographer then. My father lived in Mexico City. My granduncle had been a congressman. And there were heroic memories of John Brown’s raid and the underground railroad in the family storehouse. But I thought maybe I had been a typical Negro boy. I grew up with the other Negro children of Lawrence, sons and daughters of family friends. I had an uncle of sorts who ran a barber shop in Kansas City. And later I had a stepfather who was a wanderer. We were poor – but different. For purposes of the novel, however, I created around myself what seemed to me a family more typical of Negro life in Kansas than my own had been. I gave myself aunts that I didn’t have, modeled after other children’s aunts whom I had known. But I put in a real cyclone that had blown my grandmother’s front porch away.”

Sheryl Williams
Curator, Kansas Collection

Adapted from the Spencer Research Library exhibit, Langston Hughes: A Voice for All People.