Caroline Mercer (Langston) Hughes (1873-1938)
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In his 1937 one-act play Soul Gone Home, Langston Hughes wrote a scene in which a boy, who died from tuberculosis, used his last spiritual moments to confront his mother for her selfishness and neglect.
“It’s more than just coincidence,” said John Edgar Tidwell of the University of Kansas. Tidwell co-edited the book My Dear Boy: Carrie Hughes’s Letters to Langston Hughes, 1926-1938. “It actually seems as though Hughes is fervently trying to work out the nature of his family relationship.”
This was no small task, even for a thoughtful talent like Langston Hughes. His family history is woven deeply through the history of the United States, creating a legacy that was inspiring and also, perhaps, a bit demanding to those born in its shadow. His great-grandmothers were enslaved women and his great-grandfathers white slave owners. His grandmother on his mother’s side, Mary Patterson, was among the first women to attend Oberlin college and her first husband, Lewis Leary, died during the raid on Harper’s Ferry, which was planned by militant abolitionist John Brown. Mary Patterson remarried a decade later to Charles Langston. The couple moved to Kansas to raise their family, which included a daughter named Caroline, called Carrie, who was the mother of poet Langston Hughes.
Born Feb. 22, 1873, Carrie was the child of educated, politically active parents and grandparents. She spent her girlhood in a Kansas still impacted by the Civil War that had ended just eight years before. Growing up with her were foster and half-siblings. Her older brother, Nathanial Turner Langston, was named after Nat Turner, an enslaved man who led a revolt in 1831.
By age 15, Carrie was a “belle” of Lawrence, Kansas’s Black society. After graduating from Lawrence High School, she dove into community activism, just like her parents, and became known as a poet and a speaker. She wrote for the Atchison Blade, an African American newspaper, specifically on the topics of women’s suffrage and equal rights.
At age 19, she wrote an incisive response to the men in the Black community of Lawrence who had a reductive view of women. She refuted “the male notion,” as she called it, that women were content with their position in life. In 1892, the position of Black women was one of utter disenfranchisement across every front of life.
She attended the University of Kansas, while working at the Deputy County Courthouse. In 1895, at just age 22, she was appointed deputy clerk. Some time later, she left Kansas for a job in Guthrie, Oklahoma. It was here that she met James Hughes. The two eloped in 1899, sparking rumors of a premarital pregnancy. This cannot be confirmed, however, and Carrie later suffered a miscarriage.
The couple relocated to Joplin, Missouri, where, on Feb. 1, 1901, Carrie gave birth to a son, James Langston Hughes. The couple separated soon after and the elder James moved to Mexico in an effort to escape the oppressive segregation of the United States. A single mother with a child, Carrie traveled in search of employment, from New York, to Ohio, then finally back to her family in Lawrence, Kansas. She left young Langston in the care of her mother and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, for work.
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Exact accounts are difficult to ascertain, but it seems Carrie was in and out of her son’s life for most of his childhood. In 1907, she traveled with Langston to Mexico, possibly with the aim of reconciling with his father James. The family’s reunion was brief. On April 14 of that year, a 7.8 earthquake struck Oaxaca, killing eight people and destroying whole neighborhoods. Langston would later write about observing the wreckage from atop his father’s shoulders. Mother and son returned to the United States soon after and Langston returned to his grandmother’s care while Carrie worked as a stenographer in Topeka.
Carrie’s traveling spirit may speak to restlessness, but certainly not idleness. “While her son is better remembered by history,” wrote Jeva Lange in The Week, “Carrie was an activist who fought for women's right to vote, picking up where her father, who was also a suffragist, left off.”
Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York observed, “Given the prevailing racism within the white suffrage movement and the compromises this movement made with white supremacy, along with the sexism within Black male organizations as well as the church, Black women suffragists knew that they had to look out for themselves and their own interests.”
The time spent with her son was similarly aimed toward social progress. When Langston joined her in Topeka, she took him to the library, to plays, and even to a public speech delivered by Booker T. Washington. In 1908, she enrolled him in the Harrison Street School, only to be denied based upon their race. She appealed the ruling and won, almost fifty years before the Brown vs. the Board of Education case would desegregate schools nationwide. Sadly, the predominantly white school proved difficult for Langston, who faced racist bullying from his classmates, and Carrie soon took him out of school. The boy returned to Lawrence, his grandmother, and the segregated Pinckney School for Black students where his writing talents were quickly recognized and encouraged.
In 1915, Carrie married for a second time to Homer Scott Clark and helped raise his son, Gwyn Shannon Clark. It was in this same year that her mother died (her father had died in 1892). Langston was around 15 years old and seems to have spent the remaining few years until his legal adulthood with his mother.
“‘Not without Laughter’ makes use of the tension over money and other family issues found in Carrie Hughes’ letters,” said Tidwell of Langston Hughes’ first novel. “The mother character Annjee Rodgers declares that her teenage son Sandy, having reached the age of 16 years, is now old enough to help her by earning money. ... This example helps to affirm our argument that instead of writing her letters to express his anger and disappointment, this and other pieces show him working out his own frustration with his mother via art.”
Carrie, her husband, her stepson and Langston moved to Illinois, near Chicago, but they soon relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. Here, Langston would graduate from high school in 1920. He moved to Mexico to be with his father, though their relationship was equally unsettled.
Carrie went by different names throughout her life: Caroline Langston, Carolyn Hughes, Carolyn Hughes Clark, Carrie Clark, sometimes it was Clarke with an E.
The Wikipedia entry about her states, “Carrie Langston's peripatetic life was driven by job searches and boredom.” Tidwell notes that most scholarship views her as a “self-centered and money-grubbing woman.” While her son undoubtedly suffered from his mother’s neglect—and that should not be minimized—both of these seem simplistic distillations of Carrie’s actions.
She was a highly intelligent and educated Black woman at a time when womanhood offered only closed doors and Blackness added locks to all of them. There is also the simple fact that some women do not enjoy being mothers, even as that’s the only door thrown wide open for them. Whether that describes Carrie cannot be known, but if, at age 19, she was eloquently furious about “the male notion” that women were content with their lowly social station, what might another 30 years of closed doors do to that ambitious spirit?
It’s also this author’s habit to question any accusation of “money-grubbing” placed on women in history. Almost without exception, women could not own property, nor develop credit in their own names; their lives were defined entirely by the men around them, be it father or husband or even son, with their accomplishments often erased entirely. Money could buy freedom from some of these limitations. What to modern eyes seems like “money-grubbing” might well have been desperation for a sliver of self-determination.
In 1933, Carrie appeared on Broadway in composer Francis Hall Johnson’s production Run, Little Chillun. She was billed as Carolyn Hughes. The text My Dear Boy compiles the 130 letters she wrote to Langston from 1926 to 1938 while he was living in Mexico. Her stepson Gwyn was a nearly constant companion until she died of breast cancer in New York in 1938.