Poet, novelist, playwright, librettist, essayist, and translator, James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri on Februray 1, 1902 to parents Caroline (Carrie) Mercer Langston, a school teacher, and James Nathaniel Hughes, an attorney. His parents separated before Langston was born and he spent his preadolescent years with his maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston, in Lawrence, Kansas. Mary Langston was the second wife of Charles Henry Langston, a major black political activist in Kansas, and the sister-in-law of former U.S. Congressman John Mercer Langston. After his grandmother’s death, Caroline married Homer Clark, a steel mill worker in Lincoln, Illinois. The couple settled in Cleveland, Ohio with Langston and his younger brother, Gwyn.
Hughes was fiercely independent from an early age. When his mother and brother followed his stepfather who occassionally left the family in search of higher wages, Langston stayed in Cleveland to finish high school. He also had a volatile relationship with his attorney father who pursued work in Cuba and who by 1920 was general manager of an American company in Mexico. Langston Hughes joined his father in Mexico City briefly in 1919, moved back to Cleveland to complete high school, and then upon receiving his diploma in 1920, returned to Mexico City.
Rather than acquiesce to his domineering father’s demands that he pursue a degree in mining engineering, Langston moved to New York City, New York and enrolled in Columbia University. Hughes quit Columbia after a year and decided to acquire a more worldly education. In 1922, he began a two-year stint as a ship crewman, during which he traveled to, and spent considerable time in, western Africa, France, and Italy. He also briefly lived in the expatriate community in London, England before returning to the United States in November 1924 to live with his mother in Washington, D.C. While there in 1925 he became the personal assistant of historan Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study