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Arna Bontemps Papers

An inventory of his papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: KM
Date: April 1999

Biographical History

African-American poet, critic, playwright, novelist, author of children's books, librarian.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

Spanning 1888 to 1997, the Arna Wendell Bontemps Papers comprises correspondence, writings and memorabilia of the educator, historian, librarian and Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist, playwright, and critic (1902-1973). While documenting Bontemps 21-year career as librarian at Fisk University, the collection also illuminates the life and work of this early chronicler of African-American culture. With the exception of some late 19th century secondary sources associated with Bontemps' research, the bulk of the original documentation dates from 1935 forward.

Arranged alphabetically, the Correspondence-Subject Files (Boxes 1-30) contains incoming letters and outgoing carbons as well as publicity, programs, and other printed material relating to lecture engagements, play productions, and writing projects. Correspondents whose letters are of greatest depth and duration include Paul Breman, publisher of Bontemps' book of poetry, Personals; Anvil editor Jack Conroy, Bontemps' collaborator on They Seek a City and three children's books; playwright Owen Dodson, with whom Bontemps served on the American Film Center's Committee for Mass Communication in Race Relations; poet Countee Cullen, Bontemps' collaborator on the play "St. Louis Woman"; composer W. C. Handy, for whom Bontemps acted as ghost writer for his autobiography, Father of the Blues; literary agents Maxim Lieber and John B. Turner; and Harlem Renaissance critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten. Bontemps' other correspondents include artists (Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence); civil rights activists (Julian Bond, Mary White Ovington, Mary Church Terrell, Walter White, Roy Wilkins); composers (Harold Arlen, Verna Arvey, Thomas A. Dorsey, Ulysses Kay, William Grant Still, John W. Work); critics (Herbert Hill, Nick Aaron Ford, John T. Frederick, Blyden Jackson, Alain Locke, J. Saunders Redding, Darwin Turner); editors and journalists (Horace R. Cayton, Frank M. Davis, Hoyt W. Fuller, Harold Jackman, Roi Ottley, George S. Schuyler); historians (August Meier, Lawrence Dunbar Reddick); juvenile literature authors (Erick Berry, Mari Evans, Florence Crannell Means, Milton Meltzer, Charlemae Rollins, Ellen Tarry); novelists (William Demby, Ralph Ellison, John O. Killens, Clarence Major, Alice Walker); playwrights (Georgia Douglas Johnson, Robert Lucas, Schuyler Watts); poets (Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, Lucille Clifton, Marcus Christian, Frank S. Horne, Melvin B. Tolson); and sociologists (C. Eric Lincoln, Ira DeAugustine Reid). Although not characterized by a large number of letters, the Correspondence-Subject Files relating to educator W.E.B. Du Bois, novelist Jean Toomer, poet and playwright Langston Hughes, and sociologist Charles S. Johnson constitutes a unique group of documents which includes third-party correspondence, printed material by and about these figures, and manuscript writings.

Organizational correspondence includes that of cultural associations (American Society of African Culture, Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Inc.); educational institutions (Dillard University, Fisk University, George Peabody College for Teachers, University of California, University of Chicago); fraternal organizations (Omega Psi Phi, Sigma Pi Phi); newspapers (The Chicago Defender, The Chicago Sun, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Herald-Tribune); periodicals (Common Ground, The Crisis, Ebony, Negro Digest, The Saturday Review of Literature); publishers (American Book Company, Dodd, Mead & Company, Doubleday & Company, Follett Publishing Company, Grolier, Inc., Hill and Wang, Inc., Houghton Mifflin Company, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Macmillan Com pany, John C. Winston Company); professional organizations (American Library Association, Association for Childhood Education, Authors League of America, P.E.N.); religious groups (American Friends Service Committee, Seventh-day Adventists, the Methodist Church); and theatrical companies (Establishment Theatre Company, Inc., Karamu Theatre). Of particular interest among the organizational files are the materials relating to the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a philanthropic institution which awarded Bontemps a fellowship, and for which he later served on its selection committee.

Arranged by format, Writings (Boxes 31-76) includes research material, notes, drafts, manuscripts and/or published material for articles and essays, book reviews, books, play and radio scripts, poems, song lyrics, speeches and stories. Articles and essays range from biographical sketches ("Rock, Church, Rock") to medical pamphlets ("The Low-Down on TB"), personal reminiscences ("The Awakening: a Memoir") to professional publications ("Special Collections of Negroana"). As both a librarian and a creative writer, Bontemps was uniquely qualified (and therefore often called upon) to contribute to a variety of publications that included American Scholar, Arts in Childhood, Film News, The Message Magazine, Phylon, and Tomorrow. Reflecting his eclectic interests and extending them to the book format, Bontemps produced anthologies (The Book of Negro Folklore, Great Slave Narratives, The Poetry of the Negro); histories (They Seek a City, 100 Years of Negro Freedom); children's fiction (Lonesome Boy, Sam Patch, Slappy Hooper); juvenile biographies (George Washington Carver, Young Booker); novels (Chariot in the Sky, Drums at Dusk); and collections of his poems (Personals) and stories (The Old South). Written mostly as collaborative efforts, playscripts include "Creole Square" (with Schuyler Watts); "The Great Speckled Bird" (with Jack Conroy); "St. Louis Woman" (with Countee Cullen); and "When the Jack Hollers" and "Jubilee" (with Langston Hughes), the latter staged for the 1940 Negro Exposition in Chicago, and subsequently produced for radio broadcast. Spanning 1939 to 1966, the radio and television scripts document Bontemps' media appearances and book promotions. His close association with Harlem Renaissance figures, together with his practical knowledge of both librarianship and book publishing, brought Bontemps a steady barrage of invitations to deliver speeches at church services, public school assemblies, librarians' conferences, teachers' convocations, university seminars, and writers' symposiums. Characterized by an anecdotal prose style, Bontemps' stories aren't reliably distinguishable from his essays, at least one of which, "3 Pennies for Luck," was published as both fiction and non-fiction. Unpublished biography ("Young King Cole"), juvenile literature ("Bon-Bon Buddy"; "Boy of the Border"; "Tom-Tom Treasure"), novels ("The Chariot in the Cloud"; "Of Many Waters"; "Yielding Seed"); anthologies ("Rat Tales"; "Sugar Hill") and unfinished projects constitute Miscellaneous Writings.

Memorabilia (Boxes 77-85) includes address books, citations, financial material, clippings about Bontemps, reviews, travel-related items, including guidebooks and souvenirs, and research material, mostly printed, on Africa, civil rights in the U.S., and Langston Hughes. Periodical issues of The Colored American Magazine, The Crisis, The Messenger, Opportunity , andThe Voice of the Negro, as well as small amount of ephemera, have been added to the Library's rare book collection.

Arrangement of the Collection

Correspondence is arranged alphabetically by correspondent. Writings are subdivided by type (e.g, articles, book reviews) and within each subseries are arranged alphabetically by title. Memorabilia is arranged alphabetically by type.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Related Material

A number of items, mostly issues of periodicals, were removed from the collection and transferred to Rare Books for cataloging, as follows:

To locate these items, please refer to the Classic Catalog.

Subject Headings


Aaron, Stephen.
Algren, Nelson, 1909-1981.
Anderson, T. J. (Thomas Jefferson), 1928-
Arlen, Harold, 1905-1986.
Arvey, Verna, 1910-1987.
Asch, Moses.
Baraka, Amiri, 1934-2014.
Bayliss, John F.
Bond, Julian, 1940-2015.
Bontemps, Arna, 1902-1973.
Braithwaite, William Stanley, 1878-1962.
Breman, Paul.
Brooks, Gwendolyn, 1917-2000.
Brown, Sterling A., 1901-1989.
Burden, Jean.
Burroughs, Margaret Taylor, 1915-2010.
Campbell, E. Simms (Elmer Simms), 1906-1971.
Cayton, Horace R. (Horace Roscoe), 1903-1970.
Chapman, Abraham.
Christian, Marcus Bruce, 1900-1976.
Clarke, John Henrik, 1915-1998.
Conroy, Jack, 1898-1990.
Cullen, Countee, 1903-1946.
Cullen, Ida Mae Roberson.
Cuney, William Waring, 1906-1976.
Danner, Margaret.
Davis, Frank Marshall, 1905-1987.
Davis, Robert A.
Dawson, William L. (William Levi), 1886-1970.
Demby, William.
Dodson, Owen, 1914-1983.
Dover, Cedric.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963.
Edmonds, Randolph, 1900-1983.
Ellison, Ralph.
Emanuel, James A., 1921-2013.
Evans, Mari, 1923-
Fabre, Michel.
Fauset, Jessie Redmon.
Fields, Julia.
Frederick, John T. (John Towner), 1893-1975.
Gleason, Ralph J.
Handy, W. C. (William Christopher), 1873-1958.
Hill, Herbert, 1924-2004.
Hines, Carl Wendell.
Howland, Frances.
Hudson, David.
Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967.
Huntley, Leston.
Jackman, Harold, 1901-1961.
Jacobsen, Josephine.
Joans, Ted.
Johnson, Charles Spurgeon, 1893-1956.
Johnson, Georgia Douglas, 1886-1966.
Kay, Ulysses, 1917-1995.
Lawrence, Jacob, 1917-2000.
Locke, Alain, 1885-1954.
Major, Clarence.
Meadowcroft, Enid La Monte, 1898-1966.
Means, Florence Crannell, 1891-
Meltzer, Milton, 1915-2009.
Mitchell, Loften.
Moon, Bucklin, 1911-
Newsome, Effie Lee, 1885-1979.
Oden, Gloria.
Ottley, Roi, 1906-1960.
Ovington, Mary White, 1865-1951.
Palfi, Marion, 1907-1978.
Piquion, René.
Pool, Rosey E., 1905-1971.
Preece, Harold, 1906-
Preminger, Alex.
Randall, Dudley, 1914-2000.
Reynolds, Louis B. (Louis Bernard), 1917-1983.
Rosenwald, Lessing J. (Lessing Julius), 1891-1979.
Schuyler, George S. (George Samuel), 1895-1977.
Shute, Nevil, 1899-1960.
Still, William Grant, 1895-1978.
Stock, Mildred.
Tarry, Ellen, 1906-2008.
Terrell, Mary Church, 1863-1954.
Thompson, Era Bell.
Tolsin, Melvin Beaunorus.
Toomer, Marjorie Content.
Tunis, John Roberts, 1889-1975.
Turner, Darwin T., 1931-1991.
Turner, John B.
Van Vechten, Carl, 1880-1964.
White, Clarence Cameron, 1880-1960.
White, Walter, 1893-1955.
Work, John W. (John Wesley), 1901-1967.

Corporate Bodies

Federal Writers' Project.
Fisk University.


African American Seventh-Day Adventists.
African American dramatists.
African American intellectuals.
African American librarians.
African American novelists.
African American poets.
African Americans -- Biography.
African Americans -- Intellectual life.
African Americans -- Music.
African Americans in the performing arts.
African-American arts.
American literature -- African American authors.
Authors, American -- 20th century.
Children's literature -- Authorship.
Harlem Renaissance -- Archival resources.


United States -- Civilization -- African American influences.
United States -- Race relations.

Genres and Forms

Galley proofs.
Manuscripts for publication.
Scripts (documents)
Songs (document genre)
Speeches (documents)



Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Arna Bontemps Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Gift of Arna W. Bontemps, 1965-1973 , and Mrs. Alberta Bontemps, 1998.

Table of Contents

Correspondence-Subject Files