Langston Hughes in Lawrence, Kansas:
Langston Hughes in his twenties, circa 1930 from L. Hughes Biography from Crossing Boundaries: Kansas Humanities Council.
Langston Hughes himself refers to places he lived, worked, played, attended church, and worshiped in his autobiographies and autobiographical novel Not without Laughter. Katie Armitage and other Lawrence scholars began researching sites associated with Hughes in the 1970s. Low and Weso tour Lawrence and find his grandparents’ farmland, Lawrence homesites, and other buildings associated with Hughes. His opportunities as well as obstacles in his hometown laid the foundation for his later achievements.
In addition to a virtual tour of Langston Hughes’s Lawrence, there is a genealogical essay on the tri-racial writer. His ancestry includes Powhatan, Cherokee, and possibly Lumbee Indian ancestors, as well as African and European. These are illustrated with a genealogical diagram.
The book includes photos and related text of Downtown Lawrence, Central Lawrence and Pinckney, the University of Kansas, East Lawrence, Oak Hill Cemetery, Woodland Park, Lakeview. Other resources are a genealogy tree diagram, a genealogical biography, and summaries of the city directories, mortgage and deed sources, and Langston Hughes’ appearances in Kansas, 1932-1965.
Charles and Mary Langston, maternal grandparents of Langston Hughes, lived at this site from 1870 until 1886, when they moved to Lawrence. Langston Hughes’s uncle, Nathaniel Turner Hughes, was born at Lakeview in 1870, and Hughes’s mother, Carolina, was born here in 1873. Mary Langston’s mother, Mary Sampson, is listed in the 1880 census as living here, also. She may be buried in the area.
Lakeview, 5.5 miles northwest of Lawrence on Lakeview River Rd. Land is currently owned by a private resort.
Charles Langston owned 126 acres of section 16, along the southern edge of the Kaw River oxbow. In the 1893-94 city directory, just after his death, Charles Langston is still listed as owning 26 acres of this land. He died in 1892, and in 1892 a private gun club was founded here. The private resort still owns the land.
Charles was already in his fifties when he took up farming. The Langstons raised wheat, rye, corn, oats, Irish potatoes, and sweet potatoes. In 1883 A. T. Andreas observed, "[Langston] has one of the finest apple orchards in the State, and plenty of small fruit” (History of the State of Kansas). This orchard may have been damaged during the severe winter of 1885-6. Andreas goes on to describe the farm: "It is all inclosed [sic] and all under cultivation except thirty acres of timber land. He has a comfortable residence and good farm buildings."
The Kaw River figures prominently in the Langston and Hughes family history. The Lawrence city hall has a public observation deck on its fourth floor overlooking the river that Hughes refers to in his writings. An historic barbed wire factory, now restored, is in the right foreground, and the electricity generator building is in the middle foreground. Hughes’s uncle Nathaniel worked in a mill just south of the city hall, though it no longer is standing.
Kaw (Kansas) River from City Hall fourth floor.
In the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes writes,
I have known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep
like the rivers.
When Alice Walker stayed in a hotel overlooking the river during the Langston Hughes symposium (2002), she told a University of Kansas audience that the Kaw reminded her of Hughes’ years living alongside this river.
This photograph by E.S. Tucker shows Lawrence National Bank in about 1895. The bank once stood at Seventh. St. and Massachusetts. The bank building was also the meeting place for commerce clubs. The first town library was housed in this building.
Lawrence National Bank, Seventh St. and Massachusetts St., demolished.
A contract signed by Langston Hughes’ grandmother Mary S. Langston mortgaged the Langston property of 726 Alabama St. (Block 12, south half of Lot 7) to the Lawrence National Bank. The mortgage is dated 28 Feb. 1895. Alfred Whitman notarized it, and James Brooks was the register of deeds.
A.N. Fuller was the bank representative on the mortgage, even though city directories do not identify him as a banker. The 1893-94 and 1896 city directories list A.N. Fuller as a resident. In 1893-94, he is listed as a "dealer in minerals," residing on Henry St. He does not appear in the 1898 directory. In 1905, an Arthur N. Fuller resided between Winthrop and Warren Streets, with no occupation listed.
Today’s deeds to the entire east side of this block of Alabama St. do not list Charles and Mary Langston as owners, though they mortgaged and sold lots here at the turn of the century. Though this house is not listed as being a Langston residence in city directories, it was built during the time period that they moved to Lawrence and established residences for themselves and for their son Desalines Langston. It may have been one of their properties.
736 Alabama St., Lawrence, next door to the Langston Hughes house that was demolished. Hughes would have seen this house in his daily life.
Today Ian Hurst, a preservationist construction worker, is restoring the building to its former state, as much as possible. The older red brick was made locally and deteriorates more quickly in the severe climate. The limestone foundation is still sound. This small house is six-hundred square feet in size.
Still standing is the house where Desalines Langston lived, at 726 Alabama St. The similar house where Hughes lived with his grandmother, 732, no longer exists.
This Gothic revival building was built in 1910. The building was placed on the register of Kansas historical buildings in 2001 because of its connection to Langston Hughes. Local preservationists are trying to raise money to restore the church.
Hughes attended this church when he lived with Auntie and Uncle Reed, as he writes in his autobiography The Big Sea, "Auntie Reed was a Christian and made me go to church and Sunday school every Sunday" (18). The Reeds lived two blocks away at 731 New York St.
St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church, 900 New York St., Lawrence, KS. Built in 1910, the Gothic revival style building still stands.
Hughes also remembers when Nash Walker, a famous Vaudeville performer from Lawrence, returned to this church to present "a concert at my aunt’s church on the phonograph, playing records for the benefit of the church mortgage fund" (23). His uncle Nathaniel Langston, before he died, taught Nash music, and Hughes’ mother was a schoolmate of Nash.
Hughes left Lawrence in the late fall of 1915, probably (his mother sold the Alabama St. house in October of that year), then he joined his family in Lincoln, Illinois, and then Cleveland to finish high school. He lived briefly in Washington D.C., where he is still remembered. This contemporary painting on P St. NW, alongside the painting of Harriet Tubman, shows Langston Hughes’ stature as a hero. (Photograph by Daniel Low.)
Langston Hughes and Harriet Tubman portraits, P St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Langston Hughes seldom referred to his ethnicity and family origins. In his autobiography The Big Sea, in a rare instance, he did describe his complicated identity: "You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. " [Full quote] Hughes went on to list his ancestors as a Jewish slave trader, a Scots slave owner, an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Cherokee woman, and African Americans. A former teacher from Hughes’s junior high days constructed the worst possible interpretation: "Did I tell you…he was a bad combination—part Indian, part Nigra [sic] and part white?" Another source, a childhood friend named John Taylor, described how Hughes' mother was of Indian descent and both of his grandfathers were white, giving him "the appearance of a Spaniard" (Knopp). In the 1870 U.S. census, Hughes’s maternal grandparents and uncles, living at Lakeview, Kansas, were listed as "white," but in the 1875 Kansas census, they were "Mulatto." When the family moved to Lawrence in the late 1880s, five miles away, city directories listed them as "colored." Hughes’s ethnicity was not a simple matter.
Hughes’ ancestry is only briefly mentioned in print. To most biographers, his life began when he was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. And with limited print documentation, a genealogical tree for Hughes is difficult to construct. Although some of this information is available, it is usually incomplete and dispersed across several sources.
While his works speaks to higher causes—human dignity, personal freedom, and the abolition of slavery—Hughes’s inconsistent experiences as a mixed-race youth in the Lawrence area form the basis of his art.
There are several branches in Hughes’ lineage: Sampson, Patterson, Langston, Hughes; Loise Leary, daughter of the Harper’s Ferry martyr Lewis Leary and Hughes’ grandmother; and the family of Hughes’ stepfather, Homer Clark.
In pre-Civil War North Carolina, the homeland of the Learys and Sampsons, Hughes’s ancestors lived as freeborn Blacks. In contrast, the Langston and Hughes branches originated within the plantation system—descendants of slave women and White slave owners in Virginia and Kentucky. All four of Hughes’ direct lineages include White ancestry.
At least two of the families—Sampson and Langston—include American Indian ancestry. Hughes’s maternal grandmother Mary Sampson’s grandmother was Cherokee Indian. Hughes’ great-grandmother Lucy Langston was one-half Indian, of an unknown tribe, possibly a coastal Algonquin nation, the Pamunkey of Virginia. Through her, Hughes gained another one-sixteenth Indian blood. Minimally, this indicates that Langston Hughes was one-eighth American Indian. At present time, some tribal nations would count this as enough ancestry for membership.
Langston Hughes in Lawrence: Photographs & Biographical Resources, by Denise Low & T.F. Pecore Weso. Photographs by Denise Low. 128 pages & 68 B&W photographs. Genealogical essay, family tree, city directory information, mortgage and land deeds, and Langston Hughes’ trips to Lawrence as an adult. Available through Mammoth Publications and the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, KS; $15 paper; $25 hard cover. ISBN 0-9761773-3-1, paper; 0-9761773-2-3, hardback. Denise Low, PhD., teaches and administrates at Haskell Indian Nations University and is author of 10 books. Denise is the next Poet Laureate of Kansas 2007-2009. T.F. Pecore Weso, M.A., teaches at Longview Community College in Lee’s Summit, Mo.