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That Time Carter G . Woodson Hired Langston Hughes for His 1st Real Job

A little-known connection between two leading figures in African-American history ends with a discovery by Langston Hughes that he ’ s not cut out for a 9-to-5 life .
This year is the 100th anniversary of what is now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History , the organization founded by Carter G . Woodson ( 1875-1950 ). Woodson is the founder of Negro History Week , which he created in 1926 . It ’ s officially been known as Black History Month since 1976 .
Woodson had many assistants in his long career . Perhaps his most famous was a young and relatively unknown poet , looking for a job . His name was Langston Hughes ( 1902-1967 ), the subject of a recent Google Doodle .
I like the story of their interaction because it shows Black historical figures as simply working people trying to find their way . It ’ s a rarely told , or referenced , story about Woodson and Hughes . Perhaps more important , it ’ s a story about a young person trying out his first real job , and an older person ’ s patience with him .
The story goes like this : In 1924 , two years before Woodson started Negro History Week , Hughes , struggling against being a vagabond , found a way to escape his dead-end jobs in a Washington , D . C ., laundry and in an oyster house . A Columbia University
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dropout and a restless soul , he was now going to try his hand at an actual career opportunity : working for Carter G . Woodson , the always-serious , always-busy historian . Hughes had an opportunity to take root at the base of Black American history ’ s tree , with a man who held a Harvard Ph . D .!
“ Woodson worked Hughes hard ,” wrote Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad in The Life of Langston Hughes , Vol . 1 : 1902-1941 : I , Too , Sing America , the first volume of Rampersad ’ s two-volume masterwork on Hughes .
Rampersad reconstructs this brief time period between Woodson and Hughes , who , at 22 , was less than half his boss ’ s age : Langston fired the furnace early in the morning , dusted the furniture , sorted mail , answered some pieces himself , wrapped and mailed books , banked the furnace at night , and , when his employer was away , supervised the entire office .
These were his secondary duties . His main job was to help in the preparation of Woodson ’ s gargantuan current project , Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830 , a list of some thirty thousand persons that was scheduled for publication that year . Hughes ’ s task was to arrange all the names in alphabetical order ,
then to check the list through all of the various stages of publication .
Rampersad described the 50-year-old Woodson as a " fatherly employer ” who was difficult , but not with his st staff . The boss caught his employees , including Hughes , cornered up in a card game . Instead of firing them , a quiet-but-firm Woodson laid sown the law about the responsibilities they had and their importance to the Negro race .
Hughes responded to this work environment the way someone 22 would : He chafed at the tedium and yearned for adventure . This job was slowing him down . “ Although I realized what a fine contribution Dr . Woodson was making to the Negro people and America , I personally didn ’ t like the work I had to do . Besides , it hurt my eyes ,” he wrote in the first volume of his two autobiographies , The Big Sea .
Hughes decided that he just wanted a way to make money , not a post . So he returned to his working-class gigs . His first book of poetry , The Weary Blues , was waiting for him to finish it . Woodson and Hughes parted amicably .
Woodson had already fought for his independence . He had established , and maintained , the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History because he was stubborn and selfdetermining . Those were traits that the much younger Hughes already exhibited . So for Hughes , it was time to seize his freedom by going back to it .
While the historian would fight to keep the association alive , the artist would travel the world , writing numerous poetry collections , plays and short stories and even , briefly , becoming a Spanish Civil War correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American .
This story may only make it marginally into the larger , much more significant Black history that stars Woodson and Hughes . Perhaps it ’ s just a hiccup in the ASALH ’ s long journey and in Hughes ’ biographies . But I think it ’ s significant because it ’ s about the intersection of two very different people , a young man and a middle-aged man , who were independent Black thinkers : unafraid to set their own determined paths , each with his own goals and objectives , damning all torpedoes .
Todd Steven Burroughs , an independent researcher and writer based in Hyattsville , Md ., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks , an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark , N . J ., mayoral campaign . He is the co-editor , along with Jared Ball , of A Lie of Reinvention : Correcting Manning Marable ’ s Malcolm X and the co-author , with Herb Boyd , of Civil Rights : Yesterday & Today .