The Harlem Renaissance was a movement of African-American writers, musicans, and artists in Harlem, New York, who sought to use their art to change the way African-Americans thought about themselves and the way the majority culture thought about them, as well.
An important voice within this group of creators was that of poet Langston Hughes. He was born in 1902 and spent most of his early life nowhere near New York City, but in the Midwestern town of Lawrence, Kansas. Hughes lived with his grandmother and with his aunt during his years there.
At the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas, there is a permanent exhibit devoted to Langston Hughes. The exhibit includes a sculpture of him as a young man holding a book by W.E.B. DuBois in one hand. There are also a number of buildings throughout the city of Lawrence which have direct ties to Hughes. You can see the neighborhood where he grew up and the church and school he attended. The church he attended with his grandmother has been designated a historical site because of its connection to him and his elementary school library is now named for him.
Over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend of 2015, we found ourselves exploring the town of Lawrence tracing Langston Hughes’ roots there. It was remarkable to walk the streets where he lived and to pass quietly along the perimeter of his grandmother’s church where a service was going on inside. We especially enjoyed walking along the Kansas River a few blocks away, collecting pebbles, watching birds, and imagining Hughes doing the same a century ago.
When in Lawrence, make sure to visit the University of Kansas on Mount Oread, the highest hill in the state. Hughes “ran away from home” as a young kid and climbed this hill, taking in the amazing views around him. The experience left a lasting impression on him. The views from KU are still spectacular and it’s a great vantage point from which to watch the sunset and the unique big sky of the American plains.
Make sure to allow time to walk along Massachusetts Street which is home to many great restaurants and unique, one-of-a-kind stores, and is the charming center of this college town. Fittingly, at the end of “Mass. Street” is the City Hall of Lawrence which is now inscribed with a line from Langston Hughes’ poem, Youth: “We have tomorrow / Bright before us / Like a flame.”
The Watkins Museum of History is the second stop on our Kansas Trail!
Rebecca Blake Beech