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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

More than 90 years ago, poet Langston Hughes visited UNC-Chapel Hill amidst controversy

Langston Hughes
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.
Langston Hughes

When Langston Hughes, a world-renowned poet, author and playwright was invited to speak at the then all-white University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1931, the event caused a major stir. A few days before his appearance, the 30-year-old Hughes had an essay and a poem printed in a local, radical publication, Contempo, about the injustice of the trial in Alabama that year of the Scottsboro Boys — nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white prostitutes. His poem titled, Christ in Alabama,’ depicted Jesus as a Black man beaten down by prejudice just like Christ. The university was strongly criticized for inviting Hughes to campus and the school's president received many letters calling for the visit to be canceled. The president refused and one trustee wrote that Hughes should be run out of town before he had a chance to speak.

1931 Contempo issue featuring Langston Hughes' essay and poem relating to the Scottsboro Boys trial
UNC CHAPEL HILL LIBRARY
1931 Contempo issue featuring Langston Hughes' essay and poem relating to the Scottsboro Boys trial

According to Hughes, the event was packed with students and local white residents. A police officer was assigned to prevent trouble. Hughes wrote in his 1958 Reader that a "...leading politician of the town attempted to get police protection for the program withdrawn..."

Poet Langston Hughes in 1931 at UNC Chapel Hill. His visit was controversial because of an essay and poem he wrote for a local publication on the Scottsboro Boys.
UNC CHAPEL HILL LIBRARY
Poet Langston Hughes in 1931 at UNC Chapel Hill. His visit was controversial because of an essay and poem he wrote for a local publication on the Scottsboro Boys.

UNC’s archivist Nicholas Graham says the magazine "Contempo" that ran Hughes’ writings was seen as a radical publication, so its focus on the trial was not surprising. WFAE's All Things Considered host Gwendolyn Glenn talks to Nicholas Graham, UNC-Chapel Hill's archivist about Hughes' visit to the university.

All Things Considered host Gwendolyn Glenn talks to UNC-Chapel Hill archivist Nicholas Graham

Highlights from their conversation:

  • Hughes’ poem and his appearance at UNC-Chapel Hill caused a major stir across North Carolina.
  • UNC president at the time, Frank Porter Graham, said he had contempt for Hughes' poem and essay but refused to cancel the event or censor Hughes' speech. He said he would take full responsibility for any backlash.
  • Hughes never joined the Communist Party but an editorial in the Southern Textile Review called his visit an attempt by communist, radical professors to influence students.
  • Hughes' poem 'Christ in Alabama' was labeled sacrilegious by conservatives.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.