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Arna Wendell Bontemps House

Arna Wendell Bontemps portrait
Photo courtesy of Arna Bontemps Museum

The modest Queen Anne revival style cottage in Alexandria, Rapides Parish, Louisiana, was the birthplace of writer Arna Bontemps, a major figure in the African American literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Bontemps lived in the house from his birth in 1902 until 1906, when his family relocated to California. Bontemps identified strongly with his childhood home, however, returning to the South later in his life and including specific references to the house in his writing. After earning his bachelor’s degree in California in 1923, Bontemps accepted a teaching position at the Harlem Academy in New York, where he remained until 1931. It was during this time that he first published, contributing a poem to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s periodical, Crisis, in 1924. In 1927 Bontemps was awarded the magazine’s poetry prize. In 1926 and 1927 he was awarded the Alexander Pushkin Poetry Prize, and in 1931 he published his first novel, God Sends Sunday.


Arna Wendell Bontemps House
Photo courtesy of Arna Bontemps Museum

Bontemps taught for some time in Huntsville, Alabama, and in Chicago and earned his master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago in 1943. In the same year he became head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, a position he held until 1965. He spent the final years of his life as professor at the University of Illinois and Yale University, and finally as writer-in-residence at Fisk. Planning to return to his childhood home in Alexandria, Louisiana, to research his biography and see the house he spent his early years in, he died at his Nashville home on June 3, 1973. Bontemps always considered himself southern and 'back home’ referred to his childhood home in Alexandria. Bontemps’s widow and his biographer felt unequivocally that the author’s childhood home in Alexandria should be the location to represent him in the National Register of Historic Places. Phyllis R. Klotman, a Professor of Afro-American Studies at Indiana University, wrote in a letter dated October 7, 1992 to Gwen Elmore, President of the Arna Bontemps Foundation, Inc. “Bontemps’s writing especially is rooted to the past, to Alexandria his home, to Louisiana, and to the South.”

Southern Mansion

Poplars are standing there still as death
And ghosts of dead men
Meet their ladies walking
Two by two beneath the shade
And standing on the marble steps.

There is a sound of music echoing
Through the open door
And in the field there is
Another sound tinkling in the cotton:
Chains of bondmen dragging on the ground.

The years go back with an iron clank,
A hand is on the gate,
A dry leaf trembles on the wall.
Ghosts are walking.
They have broken roses down
And poplars stand there still as death.'

- Arna Wendell Bontemps

Bontemps is known for the volume of his work and his versatility. He is the author of 25 books, including novels, children’s books, biographies, histories, and a collection of poems, along with a handful of plays, some in collaboration with Countee Cullen. He also collaborated with another notable Harlem Renaissance figure, Langston Hughes. The Arna Bontemps House is a simple one story frame Queen Anne Revival cottage located on a corner lot in a late nineteenth/early twentieth century residential neighborhood on the edge of downtown Alexandria, Louisiana. Although a childhood home rather than one associated with Bontemps’ productive life, it is important because the author’s works were influenced greatly by this early, formative period. It is now the Bontemps African America Museum & Cultural Arts Center. The Arna Wendell Bontemps House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on September 13, 1993.

The Arna Bontemps African American Museum is located at 1327 3rd St., Alexandria, LA. They are open Tuesday through Saturday. Please visit the museum website for more information or call 418-473-4692.

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