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50 Years/50 Collections: Countee Cullen: Literary Extraordinaire

When author and poet Countee Cullen died in 1946, his wife Ida Mae Cullen, was devoted to preserving his legacy. Ida certainly had much to pull from in promoting Countee’s literary writings since he was one of the most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Ida developed a close relationship with Amistad Research Center’s co-founder, Clifton Johnson, which resulted in the donation of Countee’s personal papers to Amistad in 1970. Acquiring Countee’s papers was an early triumph for the institution. Amistad had only been in operation for four years at the time, but Ida recognized Johnson’s vision, and approved of the burgeoning institution’s mission to conserve the histories of African Americans. Countee’s papers were a foundational collection that led to the expansion of the rich holdings Amistad currently holds. Ida continued her bond with Amistad throughout her life, gifting additional documents and materials belonging to Countee in 1976 and 1986. She eventually donated her personal papers to Amistad in 1971.

Countée Cullen was born in 1903 in Louisville, Kentucky and his early life remains largely unknown. He was the son of Elizabeth Lucas, likely born out of wedlock. By 1910, Cullen was living in New York City with his grandmother, Amanda Porter, whom died when he was 15 years old. It was after Porter’s death that Cullen lived with Rev. Frederick and Mrs. Carolyn Cullen, who raised Cullen and provided for his schooling. As a graduate of New York University and Harvard, Cullen eventually became the most famed Black literary figure in America and reached the zenith of popularity in the late 1920s. He spent his remaining years as a French teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High in New York City.

His collection and correspondence reflects his numerous relationships with the literati of Harlem Renaissance including Alaine Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Gwendolyn Bennett. However, it was Cullen’s friendship and correspondence with educator Harold Jackman that produced a healthy level of gossip and colorful commentary about the lives and social activities of the literary circle. In a letter to Cullen, Jackman wrote:

“There was a “drag” at the Savoy Wednesday night. I went with Eunice Hunton. Will you believe it when I tell you (now don’t say anything about it) that she has a crush on me? Isn’t that something? The affair was very gay and the costumes were very elaborate—ostrich plumes, monkey fur, sequins, chiffon tulle, silk, satin in all sorts of colors, shades and pieces of costumes.”

Also among Cullen’s papers are accounts, records, legal papers, certificates, teaching plan books, novels, plays, and poems. His personal life is represented by legal and medical documents as well as scrapbooks and notebooks containing Cullen’s thoughts and essays. The photographs in the collection are also exceptional in that they provide a visual representation of Cullen and his contemporaries. The finding aid for the Countee Cullen papers can be found here.

Images from the Countee Cullen papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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