Carrie Langston Hughes

Carrie Langston with son, Langston Hughes, in 1902.

Carolina Mercer Langston (February 22, 1873 – June 3, 1938) was an American writer, actress and mother to poet, playwright and social activist Langston Hughes.

Childhood and family background

Daughter of Charles Langston and Mary Leary (one of the first black women to attend Oberlin College),[1][2] Carrie Langston had a foster brother, Desalines (foster son to Charles), and half-sister, Loise (daughter to Mary by Lewis Sheridan Leary); a brother, Nathaniel Turner Langston (named for the legendary slave revolt leader),[2] born in 1870,[3] was killed in a flour mill accident at 27.[3] Mary Leary's first husband, Lewis Sheridan Leary, died in 1859 from injuries incurred aiding John Brown during the Harper's Ferry raid on the federal arsenal;[3] his bloodied bullet-riddled death shroud, sent to Mary Leary as a sign of his death,[4] would become a significant family symbol placed in 1928 in a New York City Fifth Avenue bank safe deposit box by Langston Hughes.[3] Carrie Langston's uncle, John Mercer Langston, was a congressman from Virginia post-emancipation, served as Minister to Haiti and Dean of Howard University's Law School.[4] Carrie Langston's father, Charles Howard Langston, was the son of a prosperous Virginia planter and a slave of both American Indian and African descent.[1] He was an ardent abolitionist and follower of John Brown who served as associate editor of the Historic Times, a black community newspaper in Lawrence, Kansas, as president of the local Colored Benevolent Society and as grandmaster of Lawrence's Black Masonic Fraternity.[3]

Political significance

At fifteen, Carrie Mercer Langston was a "belle of black society" in Lawrence, Kansas; at eighteen, she was reading papers and recited an original poem before the Inter-State Literary Society; she became central to Lawrence's St. Luke's Progressive Club and elected 'Critic' at a rival society at the Warren Street Second Baptist Church.[5] In 1892, Carrie Langston and three others were pronounced by the American Citizen newspaper as "the most beautiful girls in Kansas."[6]

As a young, single, black woman at the end of the nineteenth century, Carrie Langston wrote for The Achison Blade, a family-operated African-American newspaper published out of Achison, Kansas. In 1892, in The Achison Blade, Carrie Langston refuted what she termed, "the male notion," that females were content with their position in life. Her writing is clearly influenced by her father and his support of the 1867 women's suffrage movement in Kansas. Her text is aimed at Midwestern black men who maintained strict ideas about women's place in society. She boldly chastises in print any men who relegate women to inferior societal positions; she especially encourages the participation of Black women in politics.[7] She spoke publicly on women in journalism,[8] addressed A.M.E. Church conventions,[9][10] and served as deputy clerk in a district court office.[11]

Personal life

Carrie Langston's first marriage was to James Hughes, a descendant of two prominent white Kentucky grandfathers and African-descendant grandmothers, on April 30, 1899 in Guthrie, Oklahoma,[1] an elopement.[2] 'Shotgun wedding' rumors spread,[2] or she became pregnant within days.[1] It was a civil ceremony—no friends nor family.[2] After moving to Joplin, Missouri, James Hughes got a job as a stenographer and Carrie Langston Hughes experienced a miscarriage. From Joplin, they moved to Buffalo, New York, with plans to move to Cuba. Carrie Langston Hughes learned she was pregnant again and returned to Joplin, while James Hughes—seeking to escape segregation in the U.S.--moved to Mexico where he spent most of the rest of his life becoming fairly prosperous. Carrie gave birth on February 1, 1902 to James Mercer Langston Hughes in Joplin.[1] Carrie hoped to reunite with her husband, so when Langston was five she took him to Mexico to meet his father. While there, Mexico was struck by the historic April 14, 1907 earthquake. That event sent Carrie Langston Hughes swiftly back with her son to the States, young Langston Hughes impacted by sights he witnessed from his father's shoulders including prayer and wreckage, as evidenced in his later writing.[1]

They returned to Lawrence, where Carrie Langston Hughes left her son to be cared for by her mother, now about seventy.[12] She returned several months later to take him to Topeka hoping to enroll him in the Harrison Street School. Harrison's principal, Eli S. Foster, demanded Langston must attend the more distant 'colored children's' Washington School. Carrie Langston Hughes claimed he could not walk so far being so young; when she still met resistance she took her case before the Topeka Board of Education and won.[12][13] Amost fifty years later, in a federal lawsuit regarding the same school board, a Supreme Court decision would end school segregation in the United States.[1] Before the end of the school year, Langston was back with his grandmother in Lawrence.[1]

Carrie Langston Hughes called herself variously throughout her life as also Caroline Langston, Carolyn Hughes, Carolyn Hughes Clark or Clarke (referring to her having wed Homer Clark following the divorce from Langston's father), and Carrie Clark or Clarke.[3] As many names as she took, so many places did she live—with and without her son during his coming up; Langston Hughes was raised largely by Carrie Langston's mother, Mary Leary, in Lawrence, Kansas[14] where his mother made occasional visits.[1]

Carrie Langston's peripatetic life was driven by job searches and boredom. The deaths of her parents (Charles Langston d. 1892;[2] Mary Leary d. April 8, 1915[3]) left her bereft of political power privileges and the social consciousness they had stirred in her.[3] A stepson by second husband Homer Clark, Gwyn Shannon Clark (b. September 24, 1913),[3] accompanied Carrie Langston through most of her adult life.[3]

In March 1933, Carrie Langston's lifelong wish to be an actress of some success was fulfilled: she appeared on Broadway as Sister Susie May Hunt[15][16] in Hall Johnson's theatrical production, Run, Little Chillun.[3]

James Nathaniel Hughes, Langston Hughes's father, died on October 22, 1934 due to complications involving several strokes; neither Carrie Langston nor Langston Hughes were mentioned in his will.[3][17]

On May 14, 1935, in a letter to Langston Hughes who was living in Mexico, Carrie Langston wrote of "a very bad blood tumor" on her breast; on June 3, 1938, Carrie Langston died of breast cancer.[3]

Carrie Langston counted among her friends Zora Neale Hurston.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bloom, Harold (2002). Bloom's BioCritiques – Langston Hughes. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers. p. 11. ISBN 0-7910-6186-8.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Berry, Faith (1992). Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York, NY: Citadel Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-8065-1307-1.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Williams, Carmaletta M.; Tidwell, John Edgar, eds. (2013). My Dear Boy: Carrie Hughes's Letters to Langston Hughes, 1926–1938. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press. pp. xxi-25. ISBN 978-0-8203-4565-9.
  4. ^ a b Walker, Alice (2002). Langston Hughes – American Poet. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. p. 15. ISBN 0-06-021518-6.
  5. ^ Rampersand, Arnold (1986). The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I, 1902-194. I, Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 9.
  6. ^ "Miss Carrie Langston and pronouncement of the American Citizen newspaper". The Americus Greeting, Americus, Kansas. February 19, 1892.
  7. ^ Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn (1998). African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. pp. 58–59. ISBN 0-253-33378-4.
  8. ^ "Afro-Americans.; News Notes of Interest to the Colored People". The Topeka Daily Capital. September 9, 1892.
  9. ^ "Sunday schools in Two States – Carrie Langston does Welcome'se Address at convention". The Chanute Times, Chanute, Kansas. June 20, 1895.
  10. ^ "Ex-slaves; A.M.E. Conference". Ottawa Weekly Republic, Ottawa, Kansas. June 24, 1897.
  11. ^ "Miss Carrie Langston appointed deputy clerk in district court office". Wilson County Sun, Neodesha, Kansas. January 18, 1895.
  12. ^ a b Rummel, Jack (2005). Langston Hughes – Poet. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers. p. 11. ISBN 0-7910-8250-4.
  13. ^ Rhynes, Martha E. (2002). I, too, sing America: The Story of Langston Hughes. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishers. p. 15. ISBN 1-883846-89-7.
  14. ^ Als, Hilton (February 23 – March 2, 2015). "The Elusive Langston Hughes". The New Yorker.
  15. ^ "Carolyn Hughes: Broadway Productions". Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. Retrieved March 29, 2019.
  16. ^ "Run Little Chillun – Cast". Playbill. Retrieved March 29, 2019.
  17. ^ Williams & Tidwell 2013, p. 41

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