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Arna Wendell Bontemps

Arna Wendell Bontemp

Arna Wendell Bontemp

Arna Wendell Bontemps was an important writer in the Harlem Renaissance. He was born on October 13, 1902 in Alexandria, Louisiana. The family home is now the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.

From the age of three, Arna lived with his family in the Watts section of Los Angeles. His family moved to Los Angeles just three days before the San Francisco earthquake! His was a loving family. His parents always encouraged him in his education. He attended public schools and graduated in 1916 at the age of 17 from Pacific Union College [U.C.L.A.], having completed his degree in three years. 

During his years at college, he became interested in writing. His first writings were poetry for which he received many awards. Like many African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance, his poetry was published in The Crisis , a magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and edited by W. E. B. DuBois. His literary career began when his poem, “Hope,” appeared in Crisis in 1917, just a year after he left college. His poem, “A Black Man Talks of Reaping” received a Crisis poetry prize in 1926. He also wrote essays, short stories, fiction, nonfiction and children’s books. During this time period from, 1924 to 1931, he was a teacher in a private school, the Harlem Academy in New York City. He and his wife, a native of Georgia, had six children. He often said he began writing for children “in defense.” He received professional training in librarianship at the Graduate School at the University of Chicago and served as the librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee from 1943 to 1966.

His children’s book, Story of the Negro, was a 1949 Newbery Honor Book. He also received the Jane Addams Book Award for The Story of the Negro in 1956.