An old southern migrant who lived in one of the alley homes in LeDroit Park at the turn of the century told poet Paul Laurence Dunbar the tale of a tree that withered after a black man was lynched on it. Dunbar later used this bit of lore in his famous poem "The Haunted Oak."
Langston Hughes wrote most of the poems for "The Weary Blues" between 1924 and 1926 in his fourth-floor room at the 12th Street YMCA in Washington.
In the early 1960s, Amiri Baraka inspired many a young poet, reading his volatile lyrics at the New School on 14th Street NW.
These are among the examples demonstrating that "a rich literary tradition exists here" in the District, Georgetown University history professor Ronald Johnson said in a panel discussion at the Larry Neal Writers Conference on Saturday.
The conference was organized by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, at a cost of "well over $7,000," according to Jonetta Baras, conference coordinator. It was named in honor of Neal, a poet and literary activist who died in 1981. He was executive director of the commission from 1976 to 1978.
The commission, which also sponsors a Larry Neal Writing Award, sought through the conference to improve communication between Washington's black and white writers.
The first annual Larry Neal Writers Conference "marks a first effort to bring black and white writers together to exchange ideas and knowledge of their craft," Mildred Bautista, executive director of the commission, declared Friday at an opening reception for the conference and the PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony.
Johnson spoke on a panel with Mara Sklarew, an American University graduate student in writing, and Gregory Tate, a Washington-born poet and Village Voice contributor.
The panel, titled "The History of Literature in Washington," reviewed 20th century black writing in the capital.
Following poet Sonia Sanchez's keynote address, other panels covered how to publish and produce literary works and "The Use of Language in a Democratic Society."
Presenting slides on Washington's black literary society in the early 1900s, Johnson said an extension of the Black cultural explosion of that era known as the Harlem Renaissance occurred in the District at the same time.
The poetry, plays and fiction of three major groups, the Stylus, Literary Lovers, and Saturday Nighters created an "unseen dimension of the Harlem Renaissance," Johnson said.
Stylus poets Alain Locke, Charles W. Chesnutt and others, including dramatist Angelina Grimke of the "highbrow" Literary Lovers, read their works and exchanged ideas around U Street and Georgia and Florida avenues NW, where a growing black community thrived along a new strip of cafes, cabarets and movie houses.
Saturday Nighters Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay and others who had been published in The New Negro and The Crisis, major black literary journals of the period, met at poet Georgia Douglas Johnson's house on the corner of 15th and S streets NW to drink wine and talk poetry, books and plays, Langston Hughes wrote.
These weekly soirees continued well into the mid-1940s, until the city became preoccupied with World War II.
Jean Toomer, Hughes, and other writers eventually left because they found Washington segregated and indifferent to artists.
Paul Laurence Dunbar once wrote a friend that Washington was "the most godforsaken unliterary town in America . . .I cordially hate Washington."
One conference participant disagreed with Johnson's failure to include Sterling Brown, Washington's oldest living poet, as a major literary figure in the early 1920s.
After World War II, black literary life quieted until the emergence in the 1950s of the group known as the Howard Poets, according to panelist Sklarew.
Diversity of interests, from science to bebop and jazz, distinguished the Howard Poets from those of other eras. Percy Johnston, Walter DeLegall, Joe White and other Howard instructors formed their own literary society when their poetry was rejected by The Promethean, the university's established literary journal.
The Howard Poets are historically the least recognized of black poets in Washington, Sklarew said. "An entire generation was passed over because publishing was closed to blacks in the 1950s," she said.
The Howard Poets began publishing a poetry, fiction and drama journal in 1961, titled "Dasein" (German for Being). In 1963, their writings were anthologized in "Burning Spear," a literary landmark of the precivil rights era.
Many of Washington's young black writers of the 1960s were heavily influenced by the New School of African Thought on 14th Street, founded by Gaston Neal, an unpublished poet, panelist Gregory Tate said.
In its time, 1961-68, the New School was the cultural heart of the inner city, according to participant Judy Howell. "It was the only place black kids just starting to write like myself, could go to hear Amiri Baraka, Don Lee, and different musicians."
The Ascension poetry reading series, founded in 1973 by prominent Washington literary figure E. Ethelbert Miller, conducted readings all over the city in both black and traditionally white institutions, creating the first opportunity for an exchange between the black and white writing communities.
In the Folger Theater's cavernous hall, Mayor Marion Barry, citing the nation's 12 million unemployed, stressed the importance of the arts, especially poetry, in hard times. Quoting Neal, Barry said, "When art works as it should in terms of the masses it makes people stronger."
Neal was a major figure in the black cultural revolution of the 1960s. His radical lyrics "Black Boogaloo" and "Hoo-doo Hollerin Bebop Ghosts" (published in 1974) infused black poetry with a new style and structure for social protest.
"He was very concerned about young black writers," said Vantile Whitfield, a member of the arts and humanities commission and a friend of the late poet. "As a visionary he saw an age of technology that could wipe writing out for everybody. That doubled his zeal to go to colleges, conferences, workshops to talk to artists about continuing their work."