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.
By: TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS
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
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
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 staff. The boss caught his employees,
including Hughes, cornered up in a card game. Instead of firing them,
a quiet-but-firm Woodson laid down 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
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 self-
determining. Those were traits that the much younger Hughes already
exhibited. So for Hughes, it was time to seize his freedom by going back
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.