Poetry Contest Day 5

While preparing materials for a faculty workshop last fall, I happened across a brief correspondence from Langston Hughes in the St. Louis Urban League Records.

white paper with black type and signature

November 29, 1940 from Los Angeles, California, Langston Hughes wrote,

“Dear Mr. Clark:  I read with much interest of your plans for the poetry contest for this year, and very much wish that I was able to contribute the prize which you require, but I am still trying to catch up on the many debts incurred during the long illness and death of my mother, and until those are covered, I am, unfortunately, in no position to aid even so worthwhile a project as your own. I hope however, that some other time in the future, I will be able to do so.  Your lesser has just reached me after several re-forwardings, which accounts for my late answer. With best wishes and regards to you, I am Sincerely, Langston Hughes.”

This bittersweet reply was then answered by John Clark, the Executive Secretary of the St. Louis Urban League:

“My dear Mr. Hughes: I appreciate very much your letter coming from California in which you express your interest in our poetry project but your inability to make available a prize.  I am wondering if you could give an autographed volume of your latest book as a prize. We would be glad to pay for your postage incident to mailing. We will see to it a small cash prize will accompany any book autographed by an author. I hope that your situation will clear so that you will be free to do much more writing. Very sincerely yours, John T. Clark”

An Answer?

Unfortunately, there remains in the files no record if a signed book was ever sent.  I would like to imagine that it was sent, and that in 1941 a young African American poet winning this St. Louis literary contest was graced with a volume signed by Hughes.  Its a beautiful thought, at any rate.


You can find a wonderful selection of poetry readings, and printed works by and about Langston Hughes on the Internet Archive  These fully online sources were made more widely available a more people sheltering in place March – June 2020.

The Future

Yes, posting something everyday* (ok, nearly everyday) is overly ambitious but that’s my aim now that virtual is our main way to communicate. Follow all the posts in this series at https://library.wustl.edu/tag/st-louis-history/

If you have a St. Louis history question about this post, or other topics, I can be reached at mrectenwald@wustl.edu or on twitter @mrectenwald

Stay safe and healthy everyone

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.