Born to former slaves in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, Paul Laurence Dunbar became the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet. Though he died at the age of 33, Dunbar penned a large body of dialect poems, standard English poems, essays, novels, and short stories. His work often addressed the difficulties encountered by members of his race and the efforts of African-Americans to achieve quality in America.
Inspired by his mother Matilda, who had learned to read by listening to her slave master read poetry, Dunbar began writing poetry at the age of six. He was the only black child at Dayton Central High School but was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper, and president of the school's literary society. After graduating he worked as an elevator operator (one of the few jobs he was able to get because of his race) until he established the Dayton Tattler, a black-oriented newsletter he published with the financial backing of the Wright brothers.
He published his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, in 1892, and was praised by Frederick Douglas as "the most promising young colored man in America." It was Dunbar's second book, Majors and Minors, that propelled him to national and international fame, largely because of praise by prominent literary critic William Dean Howells, editor of Harper's Weekly.
Dunbar moved to Washington in 1898 and lived at 321 U Street. Beginning in 1902, Dunbar entered a downward spiral of depression, tuberculosis, and alcohol abuse. He died in Dayton in 1906, and Washington's premier black high school was named in his honor.
As the founder of black literary criticism, Sterling Brown is also known for his frank portraits of black people and incorporation of African-American folklore and contemporary style. Brown is known as a poet, writer, and teacher. With his first book, Southern Road, Brown contributed to the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz, the blues, work songs, spirituals, and his concerns about race in America influenced his poetry. He studied the work of Ezra Pound and Robert Frost and was influenced by notable poets such as Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer.
Brown is a native to Washington, DC. Born in 1901, he attended Dunbar High School, and later returned to teach at Howard University. There he was an influential teacher who encouraged many African-American writers. Students nicknamed him "the red ink man" because he wrote more on their papers than they had written in the first place. In his honor, Washington DC Mayor Marion Barry named October 23 and 24, 1998, 'Sterling Brown Days'. Brown's efforts to preserve and restore the Black Vernacular helped birth African American Literary studies, and anthologies such as the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and Call and Response.
Langton Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri, was a notable poet, short story writer, and playwright. He published his first poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, in 1921, and in 1925 he attended Lincoln University. He lived in Washington, D.C. at the 12th Street YMCA for a period of time in the 1920s, where he was part of the burgeoning literary scene. During this time he published his poetry in the Howard University-affiliated journals The Crisis and The New Negro. As one of the founders of the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, he was innovative in his use of jazz rhythms and dialect to depict the life of urban blacks in his writing.
Hughes went on to publish several volumes of poetry, musical lyrics and plays for Broadway, a two volume autobiography, and edited anthologies and pictorial volumes. He has long been appreciated as a significant African American voice.
Alain Le Roy Locke was a widely recognized teacher, editor, and author. He graduated from Harvard in 1907, and was the first African-American to attend Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He studied philosophy at the University of Berlin (1910-1911) and attended lectures by Henri Bergson in Paris. Returning to America, he taught philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (1912-1917), gained his Ph.D. at Harvard (1918), and resumed his teaching career at Howard as professor of philosophy (1918-1953).
He first became known as the editor of The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), an anthology of African-American writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. He published other anthologies featuring the literary work of African-Americans, as well as books, essays, and reviews that were influential in defining African-Americans' distinctive traditions and culture and the role they might play in bringing blacks into mainstream American society.
In The Negro and His Music (1936) he placed African-Americans' music into the spectrum of African and world folk music, while his Negro in Art (1941) was one of the first works to stress the influence of African art on modern Western painting and sculpture.
Carter Woodson is one of America's most noted historians and educators of African American history. Though he was born into poverty and lacked formal schooling until age 17, he went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1912. Later he joined the faculty at Howard University and founded the Journal of Negro History in 1916, the black-owned Associated Publishers press in 1921, and the popular Negro History Bulletin in 1937. He inaugurated Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month, in 1926.
Woodson collected and edited primary documents of black history and, as a prolific author of popular and scholarly books, created widespread public interest in black history, laying the groundwork for the later development of African-American studies.
Georgia Douglas Johnson published several volumes of poetry, as well as six plays and 32 song lyrics. The home she shared with her husband Henry at 1461 S Street became the social hub of the African American cultural renaissance in Washington. Young artists and writers gathered at Johnson's home to discuss their works and encourage each other on Saturday evenings.
Howard University Professor Alain Locke's The New Negro, the manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance, had contributions from 35 writers. Of these contributors, half were born in Washington, had attended Howard University, or had lived or worked there - these were the men and women who gathered at Johnson's "evenings.". Between 1924 and 1926, for example, poet Langston Hughes often dropped in to "eat Mrs. J's cake and drink her wine and talk about poetry and books and plays."