Yesterday, February 1, was the birth date of the American poet Langston Hughes. Though many people know the month and day of Mr. Hughes’s birth, until last August, almost everyone got the year wrong.
Langston Hughes is one of America’s most famous poets. Mr. Hughes was a black man growing up in a time when people of color in America were treated very unfairly. His poems, books, plays, and other writings were an important voice for ordinary African-Americans.
At that time, most non-whites were made to feel that they were not as good as whites. But Mr. Hughes helped spread the idea that black people should express themselves “without fear or shame.”
Mr. Hughes is reported to have been born in 1902. That’s what it says on Wikipedia, for example, and in well-known books about the writer’s life. It’s even on the stone that marks the place where Mr. Hughes is buried.
But last August, college professor Eric McHenry turned up an interesting fact – Mr. Hughes was actually born a year before everyone thought he was. Mr. McHenry, who is also a poet, teaches at Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas.
Mr. McHenry was looking at a website that showed thousands of old newspapers. He was surprised when he came across a 1901 article that said, “Little Langston Hughes has been quite ill for the last two weeks. He is improving.”
If Mr. Hughes was born in 1902, how did he show up in a newspaper from December, 1901? Mr. McHenry was curious. He did some more searching and found two other articles showing that young Langston Hughes must have been born in 1901. Later, Mr. McHenry contacted experts who know about Mr. Hughes and his work. They found US government records which also showed that Mr. Hughes was born in 1901.
But there are no records of his birth. Mr. Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri at a time when Missouri didn’t keep official records of every birth.
So how did the mistake happen? For now, that’s a mystery. Mr. McHenry wonders if Mr. Hughes’s mother changed his age so that Langston would be older and stronger when he went to school. This might have been important since he was a black child being sent to a white school. It is also possible that Mr. Hughes changed the date himself later, perhaps so he wouldn’t be forced to join the Army for World War I.
Does it matter? Probably not. The news is unusual and surprising, but it doesn’t change who Langston Hughes was or the important effects of his work.
Mr. McHenry sees it as a lesson about how much we don’t know about the past. He says there’s no reason other people can’t do the same thing he did – use the internet to turn up new information about an important person in history.