Group plans to create memorial at Joplin birthplace of Langston Hughes

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Jun. 21—Where industrial buildings and parking lots are now, there once were homes.

The area of 10th Street and Joplin Avenue in Joplin looks nothing like it did at the start of the 20th century when poet, playwright, essayist and columnist Langston Hughes was born in one of those homes along the railroad tracks.

Research by members of the Langston Hughes Cultural Society has pinpointed, through newspaper articles, census data and other sources, the location of the now-demolished home at 1046 S. Joplin Ave. where Hughes was born.

On Wednesday, the society brought in researchers with the Bernice S. Warren Center for Archaeological Research at Missouri State University to do a geophysical survey to try to find the foundations of the home on now what is a tiny vacant lot.

"We will be using ground-penetrating radar to look into the subsurface beneath the ground on this property, hoping to find the foundations to the home at which Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance poet, was born," said Brandon Ives, research archaeologist for the center. "This is a pretty small survey. We are doing it in two different directions, so we'll survey the area twice."

Clearing up the past

Recent research has determined not only the location of the home where James Mercer Langston Hughes was born, it has also corrected a long-standing mistake about the date of his birth.

Bill Martin, diversity archivist with the Langston Hughes Cultural Society, said research into newspaper articles and census data show that Hughes was born a year earlier than most people thought, on Feb. 1, 1901.

Martin said in 2018, Eric McHenry, a poet who taught at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, where Hughes' mother and grandmother lived before he was born, found an article in the Topeka Plaindealer, an African American-owned weekly newspaper that covered the Midwest, that said "little Langston Hughes has been quite ill for the past two weeks. He is improving."

The article was dated Dec. 20, 1901, earlier than what Hughes himself thought his birthdate to be.

Martin said further research strengthened the case for Hughes having been born on Feb. 1, 1901, and not on Feb. 1, 1902.

Martin said the 1900 census also showed that Carrie and James Hughes, Langston Hughes' parents, lived on Missouri Avenue and Carrie Hughes' mother, Mary Langston, lived at 1046 S. Joplin Ave. and worked as a domestic servant for the family of Edward and Mattie Miller.

Census information showed Carrie Hughes lost her first child at birth. The baby boy was buried Feb. 8, 1900, and his grave went unmarked in the Fairview Cemetery until the Langston Hughes Cultural Society arranged to put a marker on the grave in 2021.

"(Carrie Hughes) would come over here (to 1046 Joplin Ave.) from the Missouri address just about every day to visit her mother because her mother was adamant about how she didn't want Carrie to lose another baby," Martin said. "Sure enough, Carrie was pregnant again sometime in May of 1900."

Martin said just before she was due to give birth, Carrie Hughes moved into the Miller house on Joplin Avenue and gave birth to Langston Hughes.

He said they stayed at the home with Carrie Hughes' mother until the end of February, when they moved to Topeka.

Hughes grew up to become a famous American poet, novelist, social activist, playwright and columnist, and led what was known as the Harlem Renaissance.

He died May 22, 1967.

The site

The empty lot at 1046 S. Joplin Ave. sits tucked behind a white fence between a 1930s-era fieldstone building to the south and a more modern building to the north.

Linda Teeter, event planner and marketer for the Langston Hughes Cultural Society, said the group is hoping to locate the foundation of the Queen Anne-style Miller home through this geophysical survey. Results of the survey are to be forwarded to the group in two weeks.

The home was torn down in 1951, shortly after the death of Otho Miller, Edward Miller's son, who lived there after his father's death.

"We're wanting to make the birthplace a landmark for Joplin for historic reference and for tourism," Teeter said. "We have to do all the confirmations, which has been done. This survey is kind of the final confirmation. If there is the ability to actually mark off where the house was, then we're going to build a small, maybe a 3-foot-tall, wood framing around on the foundation so you can look through a peephole on the fence on Joplin Avenue and see that footprint and know that's where Langston Hughes was born and that's where he lived and that's where grandma was and his mom was for a while."

Teeter said the owners of the lot, Barrett and Shannon Satterlee, are preserving the lot.

They've renovated the wooden fence on the Joplin Avenue side of the property to allow the society to hang informational boards and signs, and a memorial to Hughes and his family.

The group also hopes to get the site recognized by historical tourists and add a wayfinding sign in Joplin in the future.