On a corner of the city block containing Central Elementary School in Lincoln stands an historical marker noting the role the school played in the life of Langston Hughes.
Many will ask, “Langston who?” Too many. And that’s the point.
Considered one of America’s top poets and a leader in the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes died 50 years ago this month.
If you’re familiar with “A Raisin in the Sun,” the Broadway play that became a classic Sidney Poitier movie, you know a little Langston Hughes. Its title came from a Hughes poem (“What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?”)
Hughes’ time in Lincoln was brief but impelling. It was while he was an eighth-grade student there that he wrote his first poem, printed in the graduation program. “I might never have been a writer had I not gotten off to such an encouraging start,” he attested in a 1953 letter responding to an invitation to Lincoln’s centennial celebration. It gave great credit to his teacher, Ethel Welch. He wrote to her for 30-plus years.
Yet in his obituary on the front page of the May 23, 1967 New York Times, Hughes is quoted as saying he had been stereotyped. “There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class (of 80) and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everybody knows — except us — that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me class poet. I felt I couldn’t let my white classmates down, and I’ve been writing poetry ever since.”
This was Lincoln of 1916. Its small assemblage of blacks included former slaves, and memories of a 1908 race riot in nearby Springfield were still fresh — an environment that surely informed future thought and work of the first African-American to make a living from writing and lecturing.
He came to Bloomington-Normal in 1945 to deliver a lecture. His appearance was well-attended by blacks and whites. But he was denied a room at Bloomington’s best hotel.
Hughes’ work was not uniformly popular in the black community. And about the time he politely declined that invitation to return to Lincoln for its centennial, he was called to appear before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee, the one looking for communists.
Today, a brownstone in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood where Hughes spent his final 20 years is a designated historic landmark. A U.S. postage stamp honored him 15 years ago. And there’s a core of Logan County residents determined to ensure Hughes’ link to Lincoln is not forgotten.
Rebecca Bailey, for instance. A long-time teacher at Central, she makes Hughes’ work a key part of what her fifth graders learn about poetry each year.
And Margaret Peifer. She taught American literature in the Chicago area before she moved to Lincoln 26 years ago and was delighted to learn about Hughes’ connection to her new home community. She, more than anyone, is responsible for the marker at Central Elementary.
Some of us have marveled at just how often this part of Illinois has played a role in the development of people who went on to become an important part of the human experience. To wit: While Hughes was at Central Elementary, it’s likely little Billy Maxwell was also a student there. We know Maxwell graduated from Central a few years after Hughes and went on to be an editor at New Yorker magazine for 39 years, editing the likes of Tennessee Williams and John Updike. He wrote 14 books of his own. His name is etched on the frieze of the state library.
Lincoln has a rich history that begins, of course, with its namesake. But every community — even every school — has its own heritage with good stories that should be preserved and told, stories that give young people roots, a feeling of belonging, inspiration, maybe even a sense of responsibility.