Sometimes items of tremendous significance and worth can go undiscovered or missing for many years, locked away in a self storage unit. It is satisfying news when those items wind up in the right hands. Opening this week is a 90-day exhibit of a massive collection of original poems, first-edition books, signed pages and other unique pieces by the famous African American poet, Langston Hughes. All of the works were discovered in a Millville, NJ, storage unit.
A Vineland, NJ, woman unknowingly became the next owner of the large collection of the world-famous poet’s works when she bought the contents of the storage unit for $50. The items ended up in a storage bin when the poet’s secretary, who moved from New York to Millville in the 1990s, died. All of the items the secretary brought to Cumberland County ended up in the Millville storage unit. The woman initially offered the items to museums in Philadelphia and New York City but did not receive responses. Following a neighbor’s advice, she contacted Ralph Hunter, the founder and curator of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey and a well-known collector of Hughes’ works.
Hunter never imagined he would come across such a staggering collection of original works just one county away from his Newtonville, NJ, museum. Hughes, who played a large role in the 1920s and ’30s cultural period known as the Harlem Renaissance, held many titles including playwright, journalist and composer, but was best-known as a poet, Hunter said.
“To have anything with the great legend Langston Hughes in the collection, for research means a great deal, not only for the museum, but also for the region,” Hunter said. “He had a silver tongue and a golden hand,” Hunter said.
The collection Hunter acquired includes 20 of Hughes’ poems typed out for publication by one of Hughes’ secretaries, Ramona Lowe or Adele Glasgow. The collection also gave Hunter first-edition poetry books, telegrams the poet sent, a book on African American history that Hughes’ signed, and even some items from after he died in 1967, like the program from his memorial service and pamphlets from celebrations of his life.
Hunter describes the collection as “irreplaceable” and was impressed by the dedication of the woman who purchased the storage unit to find a proper home for the contents.
“She told me, ‘I want to make sure it goes some place nice,'” Hunter recalled, adding that he was so excited at initially seeing the 22 boxes of works that he had to sit down.
Sharon Lynette Jones, president of The Langston Hughes Society, said Hunter’s acquisition creates an exciting opportunity for educating people about Hughes.
“Langston Hughes contributed greatly to the African American literary tradition and his works continue to be relevant, significant, and important,” said Jones, who also works in the Department of English Language and Literatures’ African and African American Studies Program at Wright State University. “The versatility, originality, and creativity of Langston Hughes is inspirational. His legacy is appreciated by individuals nationally and internationally.”
“Vineland woman discovers a trove of work by Langston Hughes in Millville Storage Garage.” Star-Ledger Wire Services. April 22, 2011.
“A Trove of Langston Hughes’ Work.” Philly.com. April 23, 2011.