Date: Mon, 20 Sep 1999 22:31:22 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: !&Louise T. Patterson; Last Survivor of Harlem Renaissance
From: "Walter Lippmann" <email@example.com>
Sunday, September 19, 1999
Louise T. Patterson; Last Survivor of Harlem Renaissance
By ELAINE WOO, Times Staff Writer
Louise T. Patterson; Last Survivor of Harlem Renaissance
By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
Sunday 19 September 1999
Louise Thompson Patterson, a social activist who was the
last remaining survivor of the cultural movement known as
the Harlem Renaissance and a longtime associate of poet
and playwright Langston Hughes, died Aug. 27 in New York.
She was 97.
A Chicago native who was reared in the West, Patterson
was one of the first black graduates of UC Berkeley, earning
a degree in business administration in 1923. She later
joined the faculty of Virginia's Hampton Institute, a black
college with a predominantly white teaching staff and admin-
istration that boasted as its star pupil Booker T. Washington,
who would later found Tuskegee Institute.
In 1927, Patterson supported a strike against Hampton's
paternalistic policies, which included a lighted cinema to
prevent necking and Sunday serenades of white visitors with
Described by scholar Faith Berry as "too proud of her race
not to be a part of it," Patterson moved to New York the next
year, drawn to the intellectual and creative ferment of the 1920s
and 1930s that became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Harlem in the '20s was called the capital of the black world,
the crossroads for an explosion of cultural awareness among
American blacks. The movement produced great achievements
in the arts, from the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong
to the writing of Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman and
Hughes, who earned belated recognition as the poet laureate of
that golden era.
Patterson was not an artist--she came to New York on an
Urban League fellowship to study social work--but she became
a central figure in the movement. Described as beautiful and
intelligent in historical accounts of the era, she quickly made her
mark on the Harlem scene. She married Thurman, the writer
and leading bohemian intellectual, soon after her arrival (and
separated from him about six months later). Later, she formed
a salon called Vanguard that attracted Harlem artists with concerts,
dances and discussions of Marxist theory.
A lifelong friendship with Hughes began when Patterson was
hired as his stenographer on a play called "Mule Bone," which he
co-wrote with Hurston, another leading figure of the Harlem
cultural movement. Hughes and Hurston had hoped that the folk
comedy, written in rural black dialect, would alter the course of
black theater in 1931 when it was scheduled for production.
But "Mule Bone" became a bone of contention between its
authors, whose partnership collapsed because of Hurston's
jealousy of Patterson. The play was never finished, though Hurston
later tried to peddle it as solely her own.
The Hughes-Hurston collaboration "represented the aspirations
of the Harlem Renaissance," wrote historian Steven Watson, and
its breakup "reflect[ed] the movement's end."
Patterson and Hughes denied that their relationship was romantic.
"It was all a figment of [Hurston's] imagination," Patterson said in a
Newsday interview several years ago. Yet she played a pivotal role
in Hughes' life.
Like Hughes, Patterson admired the Soviet Union as a model
for future societies, one that held the promise of racial equality. In
1932, she led a group of 22 black writers, artists and intellectuals--
including Hughes and poet Dorothy West--to the Soviet Union.
They were to act in a film for a Moscow company about discrim-
ination against blacks in the United States.
The American blacks were treated like heroes, welcomed by
a brass band, fed caviar for breakfast, and pushed to the front of
bus and theater lines. "For all of us who experienced discrim-
ination based on color in our own land," Patterson once wrote in
an essay about the trip, "it was strange to find our color a badge
of honor, our key to the city, so to speak."
The film was never made, which led to international headlines
and caused a rift in the group, part of which dubbed Patterson
"Madame Moscow" for being too trusting of the Soviets. The
cancellation of the project made international headlines.
But it inspired Hughes on his return to the United States to
open a "people's theater" for the working class. He and Patterson
went on to found the Harlem Suitcase Theater, which started with
the Hughes play "Don't You Want to Be Free?" in 1938. Its pro-
ductions featured unpaid community actors such as Robert Earl
Jones, (later to become the father of actor James Earl Jones),
whose career was launched at the Suitcase Theater. The elder
Jones had a role in "Mule Bone" when it finally reached the stage
--the Barrymore Theater on Broadway--in 1991.
Patterson and Hughes also were in Spain together to support
the Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War. Hughes later
dedicated "Shakespeare in Harlem," a 1942 collection of poems,
to Patterson. He died in 1967.
After returning from the Soviet Union, Patterson organized a
march in Washington and other public forums to support the so-
called Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths who had been wrongly
accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Ala. Many years
later, in the early 1970s, she helped organize Angela Davis'
Patterson was close to Paul Robeson, the singer and actor
who was persecuted for his political beliefs during the McCarthy
era. After a Robeson concert in Peekskill, N.Y., in 1949 ended
in a riot provoked by anti-Robeson demonstrators, she organized
a national tour of black communities for the singer to show that he
would not be silenced.
"She was an organizer," said Berry, who knew Patterson and
wrote about her in a biography of Langston Hughes published in
1983. "She was a leader, an organizer, a humane person who felt
deeply about these causes and never wavered in her humane
After her divorce from Thurman, Patterson in 1940 married
William Patterson, a prominent member of the American Communist
Party who organized the Civil Rights Congress and was jailed for
contempt of Congress by Sen. Joseph McCarthy for refusing to
identify the group's supporters. He died in 1980.
Patterson is survived by a daughter, two granddaughters and a
A private memorial service will be held today in New York, and
a West Coast memorial is planned in Oakland in mid-October.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved