“Zora, Langston & U — Then & Now” walking tour Sept. 27 explored the paths of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes in Washington’s U Street and Shaw neighborhoods, where they each lived before moving to Harlem and leading its renaissance.
The tour, benefiting the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, began with continental breakfast in the Hughes-themed Langston Room at Busboys and Poets Restaurant. It was named for the renowned poet Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at what is now the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.
That was just one of the writer’s menial jobs during his 14 month stay in D.C. The city gave Hughes what he termed “The Weary Blues”, his first collection of poems (1926). “I didn’t like my job, and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, and I was cold and half-hungry, so I wrote a great many poems,” he wrote in “The Big Sea”.
The walking tour began across the street from Busboys and Poets, at the Hurston-themed Eatonville Restaurant. “When one is too old for love, one finds great comfort in good dinners,” she once commented.
The restaurant is named for her Florida birthplace, the country’s first, post-Civil War, African American incorporated town. It’s the focal point of her best-known work, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”.
Hurston and Hughes co-wrote the play “Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life”, but their quarrel about it severed their friendship. The 1930 play did not premiere for six decades, until 1991, on Broadway.
The D.C. tour “Zora, Langston & U — Then & Now” walks along:
- “Washington’s Black Broadway”, as Pearl Bailey termed the historic U Street corridor that was the center of D.C.’s African American vibrant cultural life — before and after New York’s Harlem Renaissance.
- Howard University, where Hurston studied. Howard was “the capstone of Negro education in the world,” Hurston wrote in her autobiography “Dust Tracks on the Road”. “It is to the Negro what Harvard is to the whites.”
She said to “the spirit of Howard, ‘…I am a tiny bit of your greatness. I swear to you that I shall never make you ashamed of me.” She received an associate degree in 1920, but dropped out because she couldn’t afford tuition.
Howard’s literary magazine, “The Stylus”, published her first story, “John Redding Goes to Sea”, in 1921. That led to her publishing stories in the journal “Opportunity” in New York. Encouraged, she departed for New York in January 1925 “with $1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope.” She realized most of her hopes, including graduating from Barnard College in 1928.
- Howard Theatre, where Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, who grew up in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood, performed with his band.
The Right Proper Brewery next door to Howard Theatre is in the old Frank Holliday’s Pool Hall, where Ellington, at age 14, found a “paradise”.
“…All the piano players used to hang out there…” he wrote in his autobiography, “Music Is My Mistress”. Some of “these cats couldn’t read, but there was a wonderful thing, an exchange, which went on between them and the guys who did.”
- The former site of Griffith Stadium (1891-1965), where Ellington occasionally sold hot dogs during Washington Senators’ baseball games.
Hughes wrote of the area around Griffith Stadium as “teemingly alive with dark working people who hadn’t yet acquired ‘culture’…”
Stories of Hughes, Hurston, and U were told by tour guide Michon Boston, a Washington, D.C. native who studied at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown. She was project director for the Big Read DC, that included readings of “Their Eyes Were Watching God”.
For more info and tickets: “Zora, Langston & U — Then & Now” walking tour, Sept. 27, 9:30 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. Tickets. Part of the $37.50 ticket price benefits Humanities Council of Washington, DC, www.wdchumanities.org, 925 U Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-387-8391. Michon Boston Group LTD, michonbostongroup.com.