The Red Scare Took Aim at Black Radicals Like Langston Hughes
Poet Langston Hughes was invited to speak at Occidental College on this day in 1948, then uninvited when red-baiters released a report calling him a “subversive.” His story shows how the postwar Red Scare targeted radicals, particularly black leftists.
In the fall of 1947, the Eagle Rock Council for Civic Unity scheduled a talk by Langston Hughes to be held at Occidental College’s eight-hundred-seat Thorne Hall on March 31, 1948. But days before Hughes was scheduled to arrive on campus, the Los Angeles college’s board of trustees hastily called a meeting and canceled his talk.
Hughes was one of America’s most well-known black writers, with many volumes of poetry, short stories, magazine articles, radio scripts, a Broadway play, a Broadway musical, a Hollywood screenplay, song lyrics, and a popular newspaper column under his belt. But this was the dawn of McCarthyism, and when the trustees looked at Hughes, all they saw was a Red.
The incident illustrates how the insidious post–World War II Red Scare worked. In a period of escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, conservative politicians, newspapers, and others sought to frighten people into thinking that Communists were brainwashing Americans and subverting our democracy by infiltrating key institutions — chiefly labor unions, Hollywood and television, universities, and the media. They orchestrated investigations and hearings to identify so-called left-wing agitators. If those identified refused to comply — that is, to say that they were Communists and to inform on their radical friends — they would likely lose their livelihoods. Hollywood producers, TV and radio stations, record companies, colleges, local boards of education, book publishers, and concert halls fired or refused to hire those whose names appeared on notorious lists of so-called “subversives.”
The goal was not simply to root out Communists, but to scare Americans against criticizing American racism, foreign policy, and violations of workers’ rights, among other concerns. The Red Scare sought not only to stifle the right to dissent but also the will to dissent by making certain critiques taboo. For example, in the 1949 film The Red Menace, Communists are depicted protesting at a real estate office — a not-so-subtle message that anyone who advocated for housing for veterans or black Americans, common activist issues at the time, must be a Communist.
The red-baiters particularly targeted civil rights and union activists, high school teachers, college faculty, writers, and performers by canceling their talks, books, performances, and even their passports. Race played an enormous role in the Red Scare. Prominent black figures who were investigated and blacklisted included Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Charlotta Bass, Canada Lee, Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Richard Wright, Hazel Scott, Harry Belafonte, Ferdinand Smith, Alphaeus Hunton, Langston Hughes, and many others. In July 1949, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) even held three days of hearings on “Communist Infiltration of Minority Groups.” As late as the 1960s, the FBI and right-wing groups were going after alleged Communists in the civil rights movement, including several close aides to Martin Luther King Jr.
The Hughes event in 1948, put on by the Eagle Rock Council, was intended to be a fundraiser to help pay the college costs for a local black female high schooler who wanted to attend Occidental (nicknamed “Oxy”), which had just admitted its first black student that year. The council had started after World War II, initially to help displaced Japanese-Americans return to their homes in greater Los Angeles and to challenge the image of Eagle Rock — the neighborhood where Occidental was located — as an “all-white enclave.” The council was one of several Los Angeles–based groups involved in a campaign to outlaw racial discrimination in housing at a time when doing so was highly controversial. It was affiliated with the American Council for Race Relations, a liberal but hardly left-wing group that sought to promote religious and racial tolerance.
The Hughes event at Occidental was set to go off without a hitch. But little did the organizers know that in the weeks leading up to the scheduled talk, State Senator Jack Tenney, chair of the legislature’s Fact-Finding Committee on UnAmerican Activities, was completing an investigation into alleged subversives in California.
One week before the event, Tenney’s committee issued a report describing Hughes as a Communist. Occidental officials were alarmed. They denied that Tenney had brought pressure to bear on the college, but president of the college, Arthur G. Coons, told the Los Angeles Times that, “At this particular time, it is considered unwise to present anyone at a public meeting on the campus whose views are apt to be socially and politically divisive.” Franklin P. Rush, president of the college’s board of trustees, who was also the vice president and general manager of the Southern California Telephone Company, said that Hughes’s views were “not particularly loyal — at least not in line with Occidental’s policy as a Christian college.”
The red-baiters’ goal was not merely to kill the careers of individual radicals, but to send a message through the media to the rest of the country. In this instance, Tenney got the headlines he was hoping for. The Los Angeles Times story was headlined “Tenney Protests Poet’s Billing As Oxy Cancels Date.” The Sacramento Bee ran with “Slated Appearance of Negro, Reported Red, Is Opposed.” “Occidental Calls Off Poet’s Talk” blared the Los Angeles Daily News. A few days later, the American Civil Liberties Union protested Occidental’s action, but that news was ignored by most newspapers. One exception was the California Eagle, a progressive black-oriented paper based in Los Angeles, whose story warned of “growing American fascism.”
Like many colleges Occidental, which was founded in 1887, had a long history of excluding black students. A 1939 editorial in the student newspaper the Occidental titled “A Race Problem at Oxy” pointed out that the college had not admitted one black student since its founding. Two years earlier, the editorial noted, a black student had been discouraged from applying because of fears no one would room with him and that “his social life would be unhappily circumscribed. . . . That such a thing can happen is an admission that Oxy has something of a race problem.” Ironically, Hughes spoke in Thorne Hall at Occidental on February 22, 1939, apparently without any controversy or incident.
In April 1947, James Dombrowski, a Methodist minister and executive director of the progressive civil rights organization the Southern Conference Educational Fund, spoke on campus. According to a story in the student newspaper, some students told him that the college had resisted admitting black students and that the college’s fraternities and sororities were particularly opposed to the idea.
The following fall — four months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier — Oxy admitted its first black student, George Ellison, the son of a Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia. But it was one thing to have a black student on campus. Inviting a black radical to speak to the student body and the wider community was, for some, a bridge too far.
“Red Devil in Black”
Since the 1920s, Hughes, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, had been one of the most prominent black writers in America. He published his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926, and for the next two decades published a steady stream of novels, plays, operas, essays, memoirs, poems, and a syndicated newspaper column, making him a sought-after public speaker.
His 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” published in the Nation magazine when Hughes was only twenty-four, became a manifesto for him and other writers and activists who asserted racial pride. He wrote:
The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.
Upon graduation from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University in 1929, Hughes returned to New York and resumed his prolific career. His first novel Not Without Laughter, published in 1930, won the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature. Its central character is an African American boy, Sandy, caught between two worlds. Sandy’s father is footloose and fun loving, while his mother works hard, demands respect, and appreciates the middle-class values of the white community around her. Through Sandy’s eyes, Hughes reveals the conflicting values and attitudes within the black community, portraying the lives of the characters in intimate detail.
Soon came Mule Bone, a 1931 play coauthored with Zora Neale Hurston, Popo and Fifina, a 1932 children’s book, and The Dream Keeper, a 1932 collection of poems. In 1934, Hughes published a collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, about the humorous but ultimately tragic relationships between blacks and whites.
In his art Hughes portrayed the everyday lives of ordinary black people, including their joys, sorrows, music, humor, and routine encounters with racism. But unlike other prominent black poets of that era, such as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer, Hughes sought to tell the stories of blacks in their own vernacular. This offended some middle-class black Americans who were embarrassed by Hughes’s depictions.
Like many Americans, Hughes was radicalized during the Depression, as he saw his family, friends, Harlem, and the country suffer. He developed close ties to the Communist Party (CP) and its orbit of people and organizations. The CP made a priority of organizing and recruiting black Americans and challenging racial segregation and discrimination in jobs, the military, housing, and the criminal justice system, including the persistence of lynching. For example, it raised money for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenage boys unfairly accused of rape in Alabama in 1931. It also sponsored protests and generally publicized the case, which became a national news story.
That year, Hughes wrote “Christ in Alabama,” a poem expressing his outrage at the racial injustice, ideas that he repeated during his speaking tour at black colleges and churches. Three years later, in an article for the Crisis, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) magazine, Hughes published “Cowards from the Colleges,” criticizing the silence of black college and community leaders over the Scottsboro case.
In 1932, the Soviet Union invited Hughes and forty other black Americans to come make a film, Negro Life, about American racism. Although the film was never completed, Hughes was able to travel throughout the country, which strengthened his increasingly left-wing views and his criticism of the United States.
In 1935, in his speech to the First American Writers’ Congress, a CP-sponsored group, Hughes said:
Negro writers can seek to unite blacks and whites in our country, not on the nebulous basis of an interracial meeting, or the shifting sands of religious brotherhood, but on the solid ground of the daily working class struggle to wipe out, now and forever, all the old inequalities of the past.
In 1937, Hughes covered the Spanish Civil War for African American newspapers. His reporting reflected the American left’s support for the popular forces resisting a takeover by fascist military strongman Francisco Franco.
The next year, a CP-sponsored group, the International Workers Order, published A New Song, a volume of Hughes’s poems, some of which had already been published in the CP-sponsored journal New Masses. Many of the poems in the book reflected causes embraced by the Left in general and the Communist Party in particular. In “Chant for Tom Mooney,” Hughes took up the cause of the radical San Francisco labor leader who had been unfairly convicted of a 1916 bombing that killed ten people and whom the CP persistently advocated should be released from prison. Other poems in the collection, including “Chant for May Day,” “Justice,” “Lynching Song,” “Open Letter to the South,” “Song of Spain,” “Negro Ghetto,” “Ballad of Ozzie Powell” (one of the Scottsboro Boys), and “Union,” reflected Hughes’s growing radical consciousness.
“I speak in the name of the black millions,” Hughes wrote in the title poem, “Awakening to Action.” But he viewed their struggle not only as a battle against racism, but also as part of a crusade for economic justice and equality, writing, “Revolt! Arise! The Black And White World Shall be one! The Worker’s World!”
In “Let America Be America Again,” originally published in Esquire and included in the collection, Hughes contrasts the nation’s promise with its mistreatment of his fellow African Americans, the poor, Native Americans, workers, farmers, and immigrants. He hoped to see a day when America would no longer be divided by class and race divisions:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
Not surprisingly, Hughes was no stranger to controversy. For example, when he arrived at the Vista del Arroyo Hotel in Pasadena in November 1940 to discuss his new autobiography, The Big Sea, he was greeted by a large crowd carrying picket signs and a sound truck that played “God Bless America” adorned with a “100 percent American” banner. They were followers of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who had denounced Hughes from her Angelus Temple pulpit as a “radical and anti-Christ,” and as a “red devil in black,” citing his 1932 poem, “Goodbye Christ” as evidence. The protest forced the hotel manager to cancel the event.
Hughes kept up his prolific writing pace throughout the 1940s, much of it tinged with left-wing ideas about racism and workers’ rights. Though he lived in New York, he had many artistic and political ties in the Los Angeles area and frequently visited his local friends during his West Coast speaking tours.
After he returned from his visit to the Soviet Union, he encouraged his friend Frances E. Williams, a black actress, to study theater in that country. She followed his advice and, once back in the United States, had a successful career as an actress and director. In 1941, Williams moved to Los Angeles, where she quickly became an activist in left-wing circles, befriending Charlotta Bass, publisher and editor of the California Eagle, the progressive black newspaper. Williams organized events, including plays, art exhibits, and other cultural exhibitions, and her home became a meeting place for leftist activists. In 1948, Williams became the first black woman to run for the California State Assembly, on the Progressive Party ticket. She was a leader of the new Screen Actors Guild union, Actors’ Equity Association, and the National Negro Labor Council.
It is likely that Williams helped organize Hughes’s speaking gigs in Los Angeles, which included his planned talk at Occidental in March 1948. Any California politician trying to identify so-called radical “subversives” wouldn’t have to dig deep to turn up Williams, Bass, and their well-known friend Hughes.
“Negro Leaders in the Communist Field”
Throughout most of the 1930s, State Senator Tenney had been a leader in the musicians’ union and a New Dealer. In 1936, he was elected to the California State Assembly as a Democrat. But he soon moved to the right, and in 1940, he was elected to the state senate as a Republican, serving for twelve more years. During his time in the state senate, he became the state’s most high-profile anti-Communist, elevating his visibility by crusading against radicals within California’s labor unions, universities, public schools, Hollywood, and other sectors. “You can no more coexist with communism than you can coexist with a nest of rattlesnakes,” Tenney proclaimed.
In 1940, Tenney cosponsored a bill to remove from the California ballot any political party with the word “Communist” in its title or that had any ties to the Communist Party. The bill passed and was reluctantly signed into law by Governor Culbert Olson. In 1941, he became chair of the newly formed Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities. This became his vehicle to gain public attention by investigating and attacking so-called “subversives.”
Tenney was in cahoots with California business leaders, who were worried about the public’s support for labor unions, regulations, higher taxes on the rich, and the expansion of government social programs, including subsidized housing and health care. In 1941, soon after Walt Disney paid for an ad in Variety that blamed Communists for instigating a strike of his cartoonists, Tenney used his committee to launch a probe into “Reds in movies.” He didn’t find any, but he grabbed lots of headlines.
Throughout the 1940s, during hearings and when talking to the press, Tenney used phrases like “Communist front” and “fellow traveler” indiscriminately to stigmatize people involved in social causes and to paint as wholly Communist any liberal organization that had members with alleged ties to the CP. Tenney knew that he could generate more headlines by focusing on well-known public figures, so it should not be surprising that while his committee began a series of investigations of hundreds of alleged Communists, it included such well-known people as Robeson, writer-activist Carey McWilliams, housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster, labor organizer Luisa Moreno, actor Edward G. Robinson, and of course Hughes. By 1947, Congress was conducting its own investigation into Communists in Hollywood and other industries. Those and later hearings attracted media attention for politicians on the Senate and House witch-hunting committees.
In the years after World War II, Hughes was still a popular figure, giving talks at colleges, churches, community groups, libraries, literary clubs, and other venues. His speeches always included powerful denunciations of American racism. But by the middle of 1947, as the Red Scare escalated, Hughes had started to come under attack by veterans’ groups and conservative radio commentators and columnists.
In a common tactic, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover began leaking information about Hughes’s left-wing ties and his criticisms of organized religion to the press and to groups that had invited him to speak, many of which began to cancel his talks. In early March 1948, for example, the exclusive North Shore Country Day School outside Chicago canceled Hughes’s talk after the Chicago Tribune ran a front-page story titled “Red-Tinged Poet to Speak at Winnetka Private School.”
Foreshadowing the censorship efforts of Sen. Joe McCarthy — and indeed those of current Florida governor Ron DeSantis — in early 1947, Tenney began an investigation into so-called “subversive” textbooks used in California’s public schools. By subversive, Tenney and his anti-Communist allies meant books that dealt with issues such as slum housing, unfair labor practices, and racial and religious discrimination. This is the effort that first brought Hughes to Tenney’s attention, as Hughes’s stories and poems were taught in some California classrooms. Tenney sponsored a bill to forbid California’s public schools from teaching “un-American” subjects and require them to teach “Americanism” as part of the curriculum.
Tenney’s committee officially released its 448-page report on “Communist Front Organizations” on March 24, 1948. The report mentioned Hughes forty-six times, identifying a number of organizations that he was allegedly affiliated with — some true and others false. The report noted that “Hughes may be said to rate with Paul Robeson as notorious Negro leaders in the Communist field.”
The report mentioned that Hughes was scheduled to speak at Occidental the following week. A few days before the report’s official release, on March 21, the Occidental board of trustees had canceled Hughes’s talk, having no doubt been contacted by Tenney himself. The document trumpeted the about-face, saying, “As this report goes to press, a spokesman for Occidental College announces that the institution has canceled Hughes’s appearance.” The Tenney report also attacked the Eagle Rock Council for Civic Unity, the group that had invited Hughes to speak at Occidental. The report noted that Jerome W. McNair, the council’s program director, “is affiliated with a number of Communist organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American-Russian Institute.”
The next week, Hughes gave two talks in Los Angeles, one sponsored by the League of Allied Art and the Unitarian Club, the other by the Beverly-Fairfax Jewish Community Center. But the following week, his scheduled talks at public schools in Palo Alto and Vallejo were canceled in response to veterans and church groups concerned about his “possible Communistic connections.”
The Hughes incident at Occidental was only one small part of Tenney’s vigorous anti-Communist crusade. In 1949, Tenney drafted legislation to put a constitutional amendment on the state ballot that would give the legislature the authority to prohibit the University of California from hiring “disloyal” faculty. Fearful of Tenney’s power, in 1950, the university’s board of regents agreed to institute a “loyalty oath” for all faculty. Of the sixty-nine professors fired nationwide for political reasons during the Red Scare, almost half were from the University of California, most of them on the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, for refusing to sign the loyalty oath.
But Tenney’s 1948 report, loyalty oath, and “Americanism” in schools campaigns were his last hurrah. In 1949, his state senate colleagues removed him as chair of the Un-American Activities Committee, in part for violating due process and in part because of the hundreds of people brought before his committee over eight years as so-called subversives, not one had been indicted, much less convicted. Tenney had done much to bring about the Red Scare, which would only intensify in the coming decade, but he’d done so at the cost of his personal ambitions. (The same eventually happened to Senator McCarthy, who was censured by his US Senate colleagues in 1954 for his recklessness, which soon destroyed his political career.)
In 1949, Tenney finished fourth in his campaign for Los Angeles mayor. In 1952, he lost his campaign for the US House of Representatives as well as his bizarre run for vice president of the United States on the right-wing Christian Nationalist Party. Two years later, he was defeated in the Republican primary for his own state senate seat. During the 1950s, he published several conspiratorial antisemitic books including Anti-Gentile Activity in America, Zion’s Fifth Column, Zionist Network, and Zion’s Trojan Horse. He wound up serving as part-time city attorney in Cabazon, a small town in the California desert. He died in 1970 at age seventy.
Blocking the Red Channels
Despite Tenney’s political demise, his tactics inspired other politicians like McCarthy and Richard Nixon, who made names for themselves as anti-Communist Red-hunters as the Cold War intensified. In 1950, a group of former FBI agents, with help from the FBI and Congress’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, issued a report titled “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.”
It listed 151 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists, and others whom it claimed, often with dubious evidence at best, were part of the Communist influence in the entertainment industry — including actors Edward G. Robinson, Lee J. Cobb, Avon Long, and Orson Welles, writers Arthur Miller and Dashiell Hammett, and musical artists Leonard Bernstein, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Lena Horne, Aaron Copland, and Hughes. Many of of those listed in “Red Channels” were issued subpoenas to testify before Congress and blacklisted for refusing to cooperative with Congress’s witch-hunt.
In its section on Hughes, the “Red Channels” report identified more than forty so-called subversive left-wing organizations and publications that Hughes had allegedly been affiliated with. These included the American Peace Mobilization, Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, American Labor Party, International Labor Defense, Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, League of American Writers, American Youth for Democracy, National Negro Congress, New Theatre League, National Council of Soviet-American Friendship, People’s Songs, the New Masses, and the Daily Worker.
In 1953, McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations called Hughes to testify. Rather than defy the politicians, he chose to cooperate. He refused to name names, but he repudiated his past radical ideas. Under questioning from McCarthy and his top lawyer Roy Cohn (who would later be Donald Trump’s lawyer), Hughes denied he had ever been a Communist Party member. He admitted that he once admired the Soviet Union, but said that he had become disillusioned years earlier. He claimed that his poem “Goodbye Christ” had been misunderstood and that he was neither an atheist nor anti-religious. He maintained that be believed in democracy and racial equality, and seemed to be criticizing McCarthyism itself, when he told the committee:
I would like to see an America where people of any race, color, or creed may live on a plane of cultural and material well-being, cooperating together unhindered by sectarian, radical, or factional prejudices and harmful intolerances that do nobody any good, an America proud of its tradition, capable of facing the future without the necessary pitting of people against people and without the disease of personal distrust and suspicion of one’s neighbor.
Hughes’s cooperation with McCarthy’s committee cost him his friendships with Robeson, Du Bois, and others who had defied the witch-hunters. Hughes severed his ties with several left-wing groups, including the American Labor Party and the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, which the FBI, the Department of Justice, and Congressional Red-hunters viewed as Communist-led organizations. In 1959, when he published Selected Poems, he left out some of his more radical poems.
Whether Hughes sincerely rejected his radical past or simply accommodated himself to the realities of being a black writer trying to make a living in Cold War America is unknown. Although he publicly abandoned many of his left-wing views, he continued to protest the social and racial conditions endured by African Americans and to promote black culture in his many works. He also continued to celebrate socialist and anti-colonial revolutions in Africa in his poetry. As Billie Anania has written for Jacobin, his later work “continued to connect racist policing with US-backed dictators in the Third World and expressed solidarity with liberation movements in Cairo, Cape Town, and Angola.”
In 1951, when he was still under assault by right-wingers, Hughes wrote “Dream Deferred.” The poem includes some of most well-known lines in American literature:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The poem appeared to be a prediction of the coming civil rights movement — the sit-ins, voter registration drives, protest marches, and the urban rebellions of the 1950s and ’60s.
He was already a well-respected writer, but the civil rights movement and the subsequent explosion of interest in black studies and black literature boosted his visibility, as his writings became widely read in high schools and colleges. He was often called the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”
During his lifetime, Hughes published fifteen volumes of poetry, ten novels and collections of short stories, twenty plays and operas, two autobiographies, four books about black history, hundreds of magazine articles and newspaper columns, and seven books for children, including books about Africa, the West Indies, jazz, and black history. He translated into English the works of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca and the Latin American Nobel laureate poet Gabriela Mistral.
Hughes’s racial consciousness and pride, as well as his depictions of black life, influenced later generations of artists and activists in Africa and the Caribbean as well as in the United States. During the 1960s, he inspired and supported many young black writers, helping shape a new wave of black literature. In his 1967 anthology The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, Hughes included a short story by a then unknown Georgia-born writer, Alice Walker, a student at Sarah Lawrence College. “His support for me meant more than I can say,” recalled Walker, who has become one of her generation’s most acclaimed writers.
The playwright Loften Mitchell, a generation younger than Hughes, said, “Langston set a tone, a standard of brotherhood and friendship and cooperation, for all of us to follow. You never got from him, ‘I am the Negro writer,’ but only ‘I am a Negro writer.’ He never stopped thinking about the rest of us.”
But even after he disavowed Communism, Hughes’s work was still not immune from controversy. In 1965, the Boston school board fired twenty-eight-year-old teacher Jonathan Kozol for reading Hughes’s poem “The Ballad of the Landlord,” which portrays the exploitation of black tenants by white landlords, to his black fourth-grade students, going outside the school’s prescribed curriculum. Kozol described his experiences in the first of his many books, Death At An Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, which won the 1967 National Book Award.
The Movement Comes to Oxy
Hughes was never invited back to speak at Occidental. But like other colleges, Oxy was shaped by the civil rights revolution and particularly by the 1965 uprising in Watts, a black part of Los Angeles. By the late 1960s and ’70s, Oxy began to recruit more black, brown, and low-income students. In 1968, the college hired its first black faculty member, Mary Jane Hewitt, who offered the first courses in black literature and culture. Hewitt had a wide network of local and national black artists, musicians, and actors and was influential in providing Occidental students, especially the few black students on campus, with an understanding of black culture and the contributions of African Americans to American culture.
One of the students who came to Oxy in that period was Roger Guenveur Smith, who graduated in 1977. Smith recalls walking into one of Hewitt’s classes one day and finding the professor talking with writers Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, and actor Roscoe Lee Browne. In one course with Hewitt, Smith wrote a paper about Hughes. For his senior project, he created and performed “An Evening with Frederick Douglass,” the first in a series of biographically and historically infused plays which have become his signature as an award-winning actor, playwright, and director. He’s returned to the campus several times to teach and perform.
In 1979, a black student from Hawaii, then known as Barry Obama, arrived on campus. Two years later, he gave his first political speech at an anti-apartheid rally on campus. Rumor has it that he achieved some success after college. Several years ago, the college inaugurated a scholarship program named for Obama for students interested in public service careers.
Among the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, Occidental is now considered among the most progressive in terms of its curriculum and commitment to racial and economic diversity — although, like its counterparts, its students and faculty often complain that it doesn’t always live up to this promise. Surely there’s much room for improvement. But today, several Occidental faculty teach courses that require students to read the writings of Langston Hughes.