Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Poets and Libraries: Countee Cullen Visits the Indianapolis Public Library, 1927

Countee Cullen (1903-1946), a graduate of New York University and Harvard University, was a renowned African American poet, author, and playwright who achieved fame during the Harlem Renaissance. He was also a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an instructor of French, English, and creative writing at Frederic Douglass High School in the Bronx, New York; and wrote a column for Opportunity Magazine called "The Dark Tower". Cullen's first wife, Nina Yolande Du Bois, was the daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois; his second wife was Ida Mae Robertson.

On Saturday, February 26, 1927, Countee Cullen made a visit to the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch of the Indianapolis Public Library in Indianapolis, Indiana where a tea was held for him by the library's staff. Hallie Beachem Brooks (1907-1985), manager of the Dunbar Branch; and Lillian Haydon Childress Hall (1889-1958), head librarian at the Crispus Attucks Branch served as the program's hostesses. Other attendees present at the tea were Charles E. Rush, director of the Indianapolis Public Library; music teacher Lillian LeMon, singer Lucretia Mitchell, Ada Dodson, Lucille Armsted, Juanita Bobson, Dora Atkins, Murray Atkins, and Sophia Freeman. Attendees at the tea were treated to a poetry reading by Cullen.

Cullen had travelled to Indianapolis, Indiana at the invitation of the Senate Avenue YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association). The Senate Avenue YMCA was preparing its annual recital and wanted Cullen to give a poetry reading at the event. [Note: Founded in 1913, the Senate Avenue YMCA served the African American men and boys of Indianapolis. Madame C.J. Walker gave a gift of $1,000 to aide in the building's construction; Booker T. Washington attended the dedication ceremony].

The Senate Avenue YMCA's recital took place on Friday, February 25, 1927 at Caleb Mills Hall inside Shortridge High School. In addition to Countee Cullen, other performers at the recital included Walter M. Price, a baritone who studied under Oscar Seagel; and the Reginald DuValle Orchestra, also known as the "Ten Blackbirds" (the group's leader, Reginald DuValle worked with musician Hoagy Carmichael and was an alumni of Shortridge High School; DuValle also performed at the 1927 grand opening of the Madame Walker Theatre). [Note: YouTube has a video of Reginald DuValle's son, Reginald Jr. speaking about his father's work with Hoagy Carmichael: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-5ppnee7eU ].

Lillian Haydon Childress Hall of the Indianapolis Public Library; Lula Hoss of the All Souls Unitarian Church; Homer Borst of the Indianapolis Community Fund; the Kirshbaum Center; the  Kautz Stationary Company; the Senate Avenue YMCA Committee of Management along with Marimon Hansberry, Ada Dodson, Phyllis Waters, Daisy Payne, J.B. Coleman, J.K. Lilly, and Sue Artis successfully combined their efforts in selling as many tickets as possible to this historic event. [Note: Sue Artis was the wife of Lionel F. Artis. Lionel F. Artis was the assistant secretary of the Senate Avenue YMCA, served as an officer of the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, served on the board of the Urban League of Indianapolis, worked with the Boy Scouts, and was a graduate of Indiana University and the University of Chicago. His papers are housed at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis, Indiana]

Before leaving town, Countee Cullen visited his friend Hale A. Woodruff (1900-1980), an African American painter and muralist famous for the murals "Amistad Mutiny". Woodruff studied under artist Diego Rivera (his wife was painter Frida Kahlo), attended the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis (now the Herron School of Art and Design), and once worked for the Senate Avenue YMCA. In addition, he taught art at Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University and New York University. Mr. Woodruff passed away in 1980 at the age of 80.

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