Arna Bontemps Letter, exhibited at Los Angeles Central Library

Arna Bontemps, Pioneer of Black Writing

Arna Bontemps (1902-1973) was born to an impoverished Creole family in Louisiana. When he was a child during the Great Migration, his family moved to Watts in urban Los Angeles, California, to find a better life. Later, he attended and graduated from Pacific Union College (Class of 1923), a small college in Northern California.

His writing career was launched soon after, culminating in a vast array of published and prize-winning poetry and books. He was an integral and influential part of the Harlem Renaissance where he would form lasting friendships with such writers as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, the latter becoming a writing partner as well. He also cultivated the writing talent of a young Wallace Thurman when Thurman was a journalism major at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Read about Wallace Thurman here: Wallace Thurman in Utah.

Twenty years after graduating from Pacific Union College, Bontemps returned to academia and earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago. He then became the head librarian of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, a position he held for 22 years.

Listen to Bontemps read his early poetry through a recording held by the Library of Congress here:

Read more about the author here:

What to Read

Bontemps was recognized by the literary establishment as a notable historian of Black culture and as a poet, but he also published fiction and children’s books. To see a list of his works, click here:

Where to Visit

Pacific Union College (PUC) is a private Seventh Day Adventist institution in Angwin, which has a small population. Campus tours can be seen virtually or may be arranged through its administrative offices. If you tour PUC in person, ask to see the study lounge named for Arna Bontemps. According to the PUC website at “…the study lounge in Stauffer [is] ‘a nice central location for both students and faculty to get tea, enjoy conversation, and study.’ It is named after the most famous poet and novelist to graduate from PUC, Arna Bontemps, whose name fittingly means ‘good times.'”

Start your visit with this introduction:

More Places

Information about the Louisiana home and hometown of Arna Bontemps can be found here: Arna Bontemps in Louisiana.

Read about places associated with Zora Neale Hurston here: Zora Neale Hurston in Florida and Zora Neale Hurston in Illinois.

Read about Langston Hughes places to see here: Langston Hughes in Kansas, Langston Hughes in Illinois, Langston Hughes in New York, and Langston Hughes in Ohio.

PUC is the second-to-last stop on the Northern California Author Adventures Trail for those traveling it south-north and can be the second stop for those traveling it north-south, after the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum.

Patricia Smart