The Library of Congress identifies these handsome men in top hats and tails as the “Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C.” circa 1900. My favorite is the gentleman on the first row, second from the left.
Langston Hughes (shown as a waiter in a Washington, D.C. hotel in 1925) wrote these words in September 1966: “Since most Negro writers from Chesnutt to Leroi Jones have found it hard to make a literary living, or to derive from other labor sufficient funds to sustain creative leisure, their individual output has of necessity often been limited in quantity, and sometimes in depth and quality as well - since Negroes seldom have time to loaf and invite their souls. When a man or woman must teach all day in a crowded school, or type in an office, or write news stories, read proofs and help edit a newspaper, creative prose does not always flow brilliantly or freely at night, or during that early morning hour torn from sleep before leaving for work. Yet some people ask, “Why aren’t there more Negro writers?” Or, “Why doesn’t Owen Dodson produce more books?” Or “how come So-and-So takes so long to complete his second novel”? I can tell you why. So-and-So hasn’t got the money. Unlike most promising white writers, he has never sold a single word to motion pictures, television or radio. He has never been asked to write a single well-playing soap commercial. He is not in touch with the peripheral sources of literary income that enable others more fortunate to take a year off and go somewhere and write.”
Our beloved Langston Hughes was born 113 years ago today in Joplin, Missouri. I am going to inundate you with photos and links to his poetry today, so I hope you’re ready. This photo was taken in New York City in 1947 by his friend, the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The men were once roommates in the early 1930s in Mexico along with the Mexican poet Andres Henestrosa. According to Arnold Rampersad’s biography on Mr. Hughes, he called their place “a vivienda, or apartment” but Mr. Cartier-Bresson insisted that “It was no apartment. It was a shack. We lived in a very humble place near the Lagunilla market and the little bars where the mariachi bands played. It was very cheap because we didn’t have any money. We pooled what we had and worked a little and entertained our girl friends there and enjoyed life a great deal.” Photo: Magnum Photos
Happy 88th Birthday Harry Belafonte! I said it last year on your birthday and I’ll say it again -Thank you Mr. Belafonte for more than 50 years of art and activism behind the scenes in Hollywood and on the frontlines of the civil rights movement. Thank you for speaking up early and often and for still speaking up and enlightening us today.
In this photo, Mr. Belafonte is on the set of ‘The Strollin’ Twenties,’ a 1965 television special he produced, with a script by Langston Hughes. The show, a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance, featured Duke Ellington, Diahann Carroll and other luminaries and aired on February 21, 1966. Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images.
Langston Hughes meets with Paul Robeson, Canada Lee, and Arna Bontemps about the Maxine Wood play, “On Whitman Avenue” in 1946. The play was about a Black World War II veteran who encountered racist opposition when he and his family moved into a White neighborhood. Mr. Lee produced and starred in the play which ran for 148 performances. This photo is from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library. Their record does not identify the gentleman on the left as Arna Bontemps (it simply says “Unidentified man”) but I am confident that it is indeed Mr. Hughes’s fellow poet and friend, Mr. Bontemps.
Well, as you know, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born 86 years ago today in Atlanta, Georgia. In January and February 1967, Dr. King wrote the first draft of his final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” in Ocho Rios, Jamaica at a rented, secluded house with no telephone. He was joined by his wife, Coretta Scott King, his aide, Rev. Bernard Lee, and his secretary, Dora McDonald. The pictures I used for this collage and more appeared in the June 1967 issue of Ebony magazine. According to the article, Dr. King responded to news reports about him taking a vacation by saying, “I’m working as hard as ever. I’d like a vacation when I finish the book.”
Marvin Gaye was born 75 years ago today in Washington, D.C. I can hardly believe that he was stolen from us 30 years ago. He is shown here, looking as smooth as ever in 1966. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Harry Belafonte was honored with the the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the honorary Oscar that recognizes social justice, on last Saturday, November 8, 2014. Mr. Belafonte, seen here leaning against a statue of the Academy Award in March 1956, has said many times “I’m an activist who also became an actor,” and his acceptance speech reflected that statement. As the Hollywood Reporter and other outlets reported, Mr. Belafonte’s speech pointed out past Hollywood failures like the effect of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, McCarthyism and the blacklist as well as “today’s cultural harvest yields a sweeter fruit,” a reference to films like Schindler’s List, Brokeback Mountain and 12 Years a Slave. Mr. Belafonte also invited Sidney Poitier to the stage to share the moment with him. He called Mr. Poitier, “a man who gave so much of his own life to redirect the ship of racial hatred in American culture.”
Percy Verwayne (1895-1968) was the original Sportin’ Life in the 1927 Broadway DuBose and Dorothy Heyward play, “Porgy,” the precursor to the iconic 1935 George Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess.” Mr. Verwayne was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) and appeared on Broadway, on radio and in several films for at least thirty years, but he was best known in his day for originating the role of Sportin’ Life. He was also a former athlete and that came in handy in 1941 when he was robbed of 75 cents by a very unwise 18-year-old within two blocks of his Harlem home at 400 West 128th street. The incident was gleefully reported in the New York Amsterdam News on August 9, 1941 under the headline, “Mugger Gets Wrong Victim.” According to the paper, when the mugger tried to run away, “Verwayne chased him for a block, grabbed him by the seat of his trousers and socked him into submission. When the cops arrived, Verwayne was in complete control of the situation.” I’ll bet he was… haha! Photo: New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection.
Nat “King” Cole and Harry Belafonte were apparently moved to sing a song after signing formal contracts to create their business partnership, Cole-Belafonte Enterprises on February 19, 1960. The venture was formed to produce projects for the stage, film and television. Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS
Billy Dee Williams arrives at the Academy Awards on March 28, 1973. Mr. Williams, a presenter that night, appeared as Louis McKay in “Lady Sings the Blues” which was nominated for five Oscars. Photo: Corbis.