Emily Swanson, The City

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This article was originally published on Apr 26 5:03am EDT by THE CITY

The handsome 1869 Harlem rowhouse where writer Langston Hughes lived for the last 20 years of his life is still standing proud.

But as legendary as the Harlem Renaissance icon’s name remains, and despite years of struggle over the fate of the historic location, 20 E. 127th St. is now just someone’s private home, with little more than a small plaque outside to tell of its significance.

Born in Missouri in 1901 and raised in the Midwest, Hughes described his dream of living Uptown in his 1963 essay, “My Early Days in Harlem,” recalling his college years at Columbia University when he first set foot in the neighborhood and immediately fell in love with it.

“Had I been a rich young man,” he wrote, “I would have bought a house in Harlem and built musical steps up to the front door, and installed chimes that at the press of a button played Ellington tunes.”

For Dr. Beverly Prince — a retired surgeon who bought the brownstone in 1985 from the son of the couple who had purchased it with Hughes — the tension between individual ownership and the house’s role as what she calls “an expression of Harlem” has never gone away. Hughes lived there from 1947 until his death in 1967.

A few nonprofit tenants have come and gone over the years — and now gone for good — so Prince alone decides what goes on there.

These days, the home is often filled with music. Prince’s friend and fellow Harlem resident Deirdre Swords leads a group of percussionists who recently began meeting weekly at the house. Participants bring djembes — West African talking drums — and other rhythm instruments. Two men originally from Burkina Faso, Yahaya Kabore and Mamoudou Simbo Konate, teach simple beat patterns to the group at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Neighbor Keith Woody said he has heard them playing while walking by and welcomes the sounds.

The 52-year-old has lived a few doors down since he was a toddler and now does maintenance and yard work for Prince. “There’s a lot of love on this block,” Woody said.

Harlem residents Keith Woody, Alstin Francis and former neighbor, Rickey Colbourne, sit on a Brownstone stoop next to the Langston Hughes House.
Keith Woody (top left), Alstin Francis (top right) and former neighbor, Rickey Colbourne, sit on their stoop near the Langston Hughes House in Harlem, April 14, 2021. | Emily Swanson/THE CITY

The brownstone’s history hasn’t always been idyllic. The Langston Hughes House was granted city landmark status in 1981, but that designation is only concerned with the exterior, not how the property is used inside. And owning a piece of history can come with competing visions of what — and who — the place is for.

A Treasured Place

Prince has seen it through a few such conflicts. The Village Voice reported in 2008 that she and her son, Michael, sued their then-nonprofit tenants and the city in federal court, seeking over $300 million in damages. They alleged that a tenant had improperly knocked down walls and made other alterations to the property, court records show, but lost the case, in which the Princes represented themselves.

“His family — the people who lived in the house — entrusted me with it, and I have taken good care of it,” Prince told the Village Voice at the time. “I feel that Langston would be proud.”

An organization called the I, Too Arts Collective was the final nonprofit to rent the house, from 2016 to 2019, but did not renew their lease after “reaching an impasse with the property owner,” according to the literary website Poets and Writers.

To writer and filmmaker Chelsea Williams, who worked as the volunteer coordinator with I, Too, she and her colleagues felt the home was “a treasured place.”

“It was nice to have this cozy, grounded space that the community could access, come through, and interact with a bit of history,” she said.

Prince said she currently has no tenants and no affiliations with nonprofits — and isn’t looking for any. But along with that freedom, owning a property of great financial, historical and cultural value comes with some “liability,” she said. The brownstone is worth $2 to 3 million, according to Zillow.

“I’m not afraid to live here,” Prince said, while noting that her position feels somewhat vulnerable. She worries that a stranger could try to take advantage by claiming to fall on the property, for example.

“I have to live here,” she said, “and I’m by myself.”

Building Wealth

Woody believes the Hughes House contributes to a sense of community on the block where neighbors are likely to sit on their stoops and chat with everyone passing by.

Pointing down the street in both directions, he said, “That corner to that corner, we’re family. We help each other as much as we can.”

Woody noted that Prince often still opens her doors to people interested in seeing Hughes’ former home — but not before giving them the once-over.

“She’s gotta know you’re not sneaky and trying to pull something,” he said, adding that “she has a good eye for the good.”

A plaque gives information about the historic Langston Hughes House in Harlem.
“Hughes said that Harlem was the source of his literary inspiration,” reads this plaque placed by the Landmarks Preservation Foundation in 1989. | Emily Swanson/THE CITY

Neighbors say they see a lot of tourists and school groups pass through to see a bit of Hughes’ legacy, and some believe the house should operate as a museum. According to neighbor Alstin Francis, 63, the opportunity is ripe: “There’s a lot of foot traffic that comes through the neighborhood, and they all want Langston Hughes,” Francis said.

His friend and former neighbor Rickey “Buba” Colbourne, 60, agreed: “Clean up, but leave it as it is. You don’t have to do much — people will come.”

Colbourne, who now lives in the Bronx, suggested visitors could pay a reasonable fee, “like you would pay for The Met or something,” to honor the house’s upkeep and cultural significance.

But ultimately, those decisions are up to Prince. With the house in her control, she can host any event or person of her choosing, no matter how controversial — “even someone like Louis Farrakhan,” she said as a hypothetical.

Partnering with a nonprofit, she said, would curtail her freedom: “You’re limited in what you can say and do,” which she said is “not real ownership.”

As the drumming group keeps on its weekly schedule, Swords, Prince, and friends have begun making more plans for the house: They want to host interviews, recorded for YouTube in front of an audience. A book club, writing workshop and art exhibit are other possibilities.

For Prince, it comes down to building a legacy.

“Owning the building is Black wealth, and if you turn it over to a nonprofit, you’re handing over the wealth model,” she said. “A nonprofit is not Black wealth.”

Whatever happens at the Hughes House, it seems likely folks will gather there again.

“This block is spiritual,” said Woody, who believes the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance poet helps keep people connected here. “Hughes’ essence is peace and happiness.”

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The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes | BookBite
Listen to a performance of The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes.

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