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February 1, 1901 – Langston Hughes, American poet & road trip pioneer, is born

Poet Langston Hughes in Harlem. (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Poetry Foundation)

Born in Missouri on this day in 1901, Langston Hughes would grow up to be a prominent poet, novelist, activist and an important social figure of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. What he wasn’t known for, was his driving skills, which were apparently non-existent. Despite this, writer and cultural archivist Zora Neale Hurston had no qualms inviting Hughes to join her on an epic road trip of great importance in 1927.

Hughes had just jumped off the train in Mobile, Alabama after a stint in New Orleans when he had a chance encounter with Hurston. Though he had recently finished a speaking engagement, his pockets were more or less empty but his spirit remained full. He was no stranger to life on the move. When Neale asked him to join her on a mission to catalog the folklore, songs and traditions of southern residence, he didn’t refuse. Starting their in Mobile, their trip would ultimately take them to New York. Their ride for the journey? Hurston’s Nash coupe nicknamed “Sassy Susie.”

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes

The Langston Hughes road trip

Hughes later wrote of the trip‘s origins, “Blind guitar players, conjur men, and former slaves were her quarry, small town jooks and plantation churches, her haunts. I knew it would be fun traveling with her. It was.”

Maureen Corrigan wrote in review of the book, Zora and Langston – A Story of Friendship and Betrayal, ” …driving through big cities like Montgomery, Ala., and Savannah, Ga., and on dirt roads into the countryside. They stopped at Tuskegee University, where Hughes visited the renowned scientist George Washington Carver, and raced to Macon, Ga., in time to see Bessie Smith perform. Throughout those weeks on the road, they became best friends, sharing food, money and conversations about art and race.”

After about 1,200 miles and two weeks on the road, the pair arrived in New York. All told, they spent around $50 in gas, oil, repairs and at least one $5 speeding ticket. The later being impressive, given the average speed of cars at the time clocked in around 35 miles per hour.

zora neale hurston and her nash
Zora Neale Hurston and her Nash

Florida Road Workers by Langston Hughes

From the book mentioned above, by Yuval Taylor, “From the perspective of ninety years later, Zora and Langston’s Southern road trip seems a halcyon journey of bonhomie, adventure, creativity, discovery, and intellectual challenge. It was certainly an eye-opening experience for Langston, who had learned of the South primarily through books and through talking to others who had been there. What surprised him most was the happiness of its inhabitants: “Most of the Negroes seemed to be having a grand time and one couldn’t help but like them,” he wrote in his characteristically naive manner. I doubt that Zora, on the other hand, saw anything very different from what she’d already seen on her journeys. And the trip had also “worn [her] down,” as she later wrote: she only weighed 124 pounds by the end of it. For her, the grandest thing must have been cementing her friendship with Langston — and being “fed on the company of good things.

Perhaps a stretch of automotive history, Hughes and Hurston became pioneers of the American road trip. The US Highway System had only just opened two years prior, and these two artists took full advantage of what the open road offered – freedom to be – freedom to go.

Langston Hughes wrote a poem the year of their trip titled Florida Road Workers.

I’m makin’ a road

For the cars

To fly by on.

Makin’ a road

Through the palmetto thicket

For light and civilization

To travel on.

Makin’ a road

For the rich old white men

To sweep over in their big cars

And leave me standin’ here.

Sure,

A road helps all of us!

White folks ride–

And I get to see ‘em ride.

I ain’t never seen nobody

Ride so fine before.

Hey buddy!

Look at me.

I’m makin’ a road!

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