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Oral history interview with Arna Bontemps, 1971.

Creator: Bontemps, Arna, 1902-1973
Project: Black Journalists Oral History Collection.
(see all project interviews)
Phys. Desc. :Transcript: 32 pages Sound recording: 1 sound cassette
Location: Columbia Center for Oral History
Full CLIO record >>

Biographical Note

Arna Bontemps (1902-1973) was a novelist, poet, and noted member of the Harlem Renaissance. He was born into a Louisiana Creole family in Alexandria, Louisiana; his father Paul Bismark Bontemps was a bricklayer and his mother Maria Carolina Pembroke Bontemps was a schoolteacher. In 1905, his family relocated to Los Angeles as part of the Great Migration and settled in the Watts neighborhood. Bontemps attended public schools and completed his bachelor's degree at Pacific Union College where he majored in English with a minor in history. Bontemps moved to New York City and began teaching at Harlem Academy in 1924, as he simultaneously pursued a writing career. Bontemps returned south in 1931 during the Great Depression, settling in Huntsville, Alabama where he taught at Oakwood Junior College. In 1943 Bontemps earned a master's degree in library science from the University of Chicago and accepted a position as head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he developed the University’s Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection. He remained at Fisk until 1964, after which Bontemps worked at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, and Yale University, where he was curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection. Bontemps wrote extensively and published much of his work. He was acquainted with many Harlem Renaissance writers, artists and intellectuals; among them: Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, W.E.B. Dubois, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer. He was also the recipient of writing awards from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League (NUL). In addition his children’s history book Story of the Negro received the Jane Addams Book Award and recognition as a Newbery Honor Book. In 1926, he married Alberta Johnson and together they had six children. Bontemps died at his home in Nashville in 1973.

Scope and Contents

Bontemps discusses: Free At Last, his biography of Frederick Douglass; the successes of the black press and its dwindling significance; his early exposure to black newspapers; and their role in the Great Migration of black Americans out of the south. Bontemps describes the new employment opportunities available to black journalists at mainstream news outlets and the challenges this creates for black papers that cannot offer competitive salaries and thus cannot appeal to the available talent pool. He examines the credibility of black newspapers and whether or not it is important for black papers to be black-owned. Bontemps recalls his aspirations to be a journalist and his refusal by The Los Angeles Times. He describes the black newspaper as a phenomenon of the North and how, in the Deep South, black papers were met with hostility because they encouraged social change and activism.


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