Langston Hughes poem ("Cultural Exchange") on the wall by rpongsaj

Harlem Renaissance in Westfield, NJ

I live in Cranford, New Jersey, which is a lovely place to live and raise a family. Cranford, and the neighboring towns of Westfield and Garwood, have good schools, real downtowns with restaurants and movie theaters, and nice parks. 

These, however, are not ethnically diverse communities. According to the 2010 US Census, both Cranford and Westfield have populations that are about 90% White and 3% Black.  So it surprised me to learn that three towering figures of the Harlem Renaissance once lived in Westfield, New Jersey. 

Paul Robeson, New Jersey native, academic and athletic star at Rutgers, lived in Westfield when his father was Pastor of St. Luke’s AME Zion Church, at the corner of Downer and Osborn, from 1907 to 1910. He lived on what is now Watterson St (Spring Street at the time) near Rahway Avenue, in a house that no longer exists.

A decade later, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston both lived just around the corner from that church, Hughes at 514 Downer Street and Hurston at 405 West Broad Street.

While in Westfield, Hughes and Hurston collaborated on a play that didn’t get produced for another 60 years. The two fought over the the play and it ended up ruining their close friendship. For a local take on this, see the Westfield Record from March 14, 1991, page A-14, with stories on both the play and Langston Hughes’s life in Westfield.


These three amazing individuals worked to make the world  a better place many decades ago. So while I’m thrilled to learn of this connection between them and my local community, I’m saddened to think about how far New Jersey still has to go to ensure racial justice and fairness.

People may think of NJ as a Northeastern, progressive state, but our communities continue to be too segregated and our justice system, by some measures, among the worst in the country. For example, in NJ, NJ incarcerates Blacks at more than 10 times the rate of Whites.

But I have hope for the future.  Great people have been doing great work on issues like bail reform, immigrants rights, and drug policy (which includes drug courts and marijuana legalization). Among these are my colleagues at the ACLU of New Jersey, Rev. Charles Boyer’s Salvation and Social Justice, and the Drug Policy Alliance in NJ. Please support these and other similar groups.

Some Langston Hughes Poetry

Having discovered that Langston Hughes once lived so close to where I am now, I went and re-read a bunch of his poems. These works still seem fresh and important. Even 75 or 100 years later,  so many speak to the America of today. He captures both the rage at what is wrong, and the hope for a better future.

Here are some excerpts from a few that seem particularly relevant today. Click on the titles to read the complete poems.

Harlem (Dream Deferred):

What happens to a dream deferred?
  Does it dry up
  like a raisin in the sun?

Or his earliest published poem,

The Negro Speaks of Rivers?

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

But perhaps, with our current struggles, it should be

Let America be America Again

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Go read some Langston Hughes today!  

Feature Image by rpongsaj, other photos by me  


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