After learning of an obscure part of local history a couple of years ago, Henry Lowe set out on a quest to find a book, or a signature, or a photograph, from a spring night in Orange in 1945.
He recently found his Holy Grail.
Lowe, who is the founder of the Orange African-American Museum, did not have to dig or fight snakes like Indiana Jones. His piece of local archeology was hidden in a book.
Acclaimed African American poet Langston Hughes came to Orange on April 13, 1945. He came on a tour to benefit what the Orange Leader newspaper reported as “the proposed Negro USO building.” He did the reading and benefit for Salem Methodist Church on John Avenue.
The appearance of the poet had been forgotten until KOGT.com had a story on it after discovering a headline in the April 12, 1945 paper.
When he read the story, Lowe wanted to find some kind of memorabilia from Hughes in Orange. Lowe, who moved to here in 1951 as a high school student, asked longtime Salem Methodist members and other people around town. No one could remember seeing anything from the historic night.
Lowe found his treasure accidentally.
Inside a history book, he found a yellowed pamphlet of Freedom’s Plow, a poem Hughes had written in 1943 as an inspiration for the United States fighting against facism.
The poet had signed in school-teacher perfect script writing, “For Velma Jeter, with sincere regards from Langston Hughes.”
Velma Jeter was a teacher and her husband was a dentist and high school band director. Mrs. Jeter had a national reputation in civil rights movement and was a founder of the Orange Chapter of the NAACP. She died in 1998 at the age of 95.
Lowe said former Orange Mayor Essie Bellfield, who was a friend of Jeter, recently gave him a collection of books that had belonged to Jeter.
Lowe said he was looking through a three-volume set of books on black history that was published by Ebony Magazine. Within the pages of one, he found the pamphlet.
The inside back of the pamphlet was signed by Margaret Walker with an added “Thanks for the fine hospitality,” with ‘hospitality’ underlined.
The signature and message solves a mystery. Walker, who was 30 in 1945, was already an award-winning poet. She later earned a doctorate of philosophy and university professor. She wrote many books and essays on African American history. Her novel, Jubilee, was published in 1966 and was the first fiction to tell a Civil War story from the perspective of slaves.
Southern Cultures.org reported on a speech Dr. Walker gave once saying, “Whenever I think of Langston now I see a great collage and montage of all the places we were together and all the books he wrote and his reading poetry in so many different places…a night in Orange, Texas, spilling a drink on my dress and saying you look like something straight out of Vogue.”
The night in Orange must have been April 13, 1945, because she was with Hughes that night.
By 1945, the last year of World War II, Orange had a population of an estimated 60,000 because of the boom for the shipbuilding industry. Thousands of sailors came through town to pick up the ships to sail to war.
The city had a large USO, but it was for whites only in those days of segregation, even though black women were working in the shipyards and black men were in the military. Hughes worked to help the war effort and benefit USO clubs for blacks.
The local Negro USO Committee, which sponsored the reading at Salem Methodist, had L.C. Thomas as chair, Solomon Johnson as secretary, Charles Rosenthal as treasurer, Gertie Hubert as senior hostess, and Katie Sparrow as junior hostess.
Lowe said he is going to contact Stark Museum of Art personnel to ask for advice on how to preserve the rare piece of local history.
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-