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James Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. From 1903 to 1915 he lived mostly in Lawrence with his grandmother, Mary Langston. Hughes' grandfather, Charles H. Langston, settled in Kansas in 1862. Charles and Mary were both free blacks who were educated at Oberlin College in Ohio. They met and married there in 1869. They returned to Kansas and bought a farm just northwest of Lawrence near Lakeview. Charles Langston was at various times a teacher, a farmer, editor of The Historic Times, a black Lawrence newspaper, and a partner in a grocery store located at 820 Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence. Some time before Charles' death in 1892, the family moved to 732 Alabama Street in Lawrence.
Langston Hughes' mother, Carolina Mercer Langston, was born at the Lakeview farm in 1873. She attended the University of Kansas for one year in 1894-95, and worked as a clerk at the courthouse. Carrie married James Hughes in Oklahoma in 1899. Shortly after their son's birth, James Hughes left the United States to escape the racial prejudice that stopped him from practicing law. He eventually settled in Mexico. Carrie and young Langston returned to Lawrence to live with Mary on Alabama Street. Carrie did not stay long. Except for short periods spent with his mother in Topeka and Kansas City, Langston remained in Lawrence with his grandmother while Carrie moved from place to place looking for better jobs.
Langston Hughes attended first grade in Topeka where he lived with his mother for a short time. He returned to Lawrence and enrolled at Pinckney School, where he attended second and third grades in a segregated classroom. Beginning in fourth grade, Lawrence schools were not segregated. Hughes went to New York School for fourth through sixth grades. Hughes wrote that he was often lonely living with his grandmother, who was elderly and a stern woman. She also was a proud woman who refused to do domestic work. Instead she rented out rooms in her house to e********y. Still they were poor and Mary often had trouble making her mortgage payments. Langston did odd jobs to help out, selling newspapers, selling maple seeds he collected to a seed company, and working at a hotel. He entered seventh grade at Central School, then located at 9th and Kentucky Street, in the fall of 1914. Mary Langston died the following spring and Hughes went to live with James and Mary Reed at 731 New York Street. The Reeds were friends of the family with whom Mary and her grandson had stayed before, and young Langston was very happy there. In the summer of 1915, when he was thirteen years old, he joined Carrie in Lincoln, Illinois.
Here's one of his poems.
by Langston Hughes
Clean the spittoons, boy.
Clean the spittoons.
The steam in hotel kitchens,
And the smoke in hotel lobbies,
And the slime in hotel spittoons:
Part of my life.
Two dollars a day.
Buys shoes for the baby.
House rent to pay.
Gin on Saturday,
Church on Sunday.
Babies and gin and church
and women and Sunday
all mixed up with dimes and
dollars and clean spittoons
and house rent to pay.
A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord
Bright polished brass like the cymbals
Of King David's dancers,
Like the wine cups of Solomon.
A clean spittoon on the altar of the Lord.
A clean bright spittoon all newly polished,-
Come 'ere boy!
Originally published in New Masses, December 1926.
Reprinted in Fine Clothes to the Jew in 1927.