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Louise T. Patterson; Last Survivor of Harlem Renaissance

September 19, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 administration 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 plantation songs.

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 discrimination 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 discrimination 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 productions 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.

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