At the corner of St. James and 1327 Third Street, a middle class, vanilla-white, wood frame house built circa 1890 is comfortably snuggled inside a mauve-brown picket fence.
It is the original home-turned-museum of Alexandria’s native son, Arna Bontemps, the writer who had prominent influence on the Harlem renaissance and helped lead the “New Negro” movement with other young black writers.
“Bontemps went to Harlem to be a part of the Harlem renaissance, and this was a time that African Americans went to New York to share the vivid experiences. One can observe the universality of his works,” founder/president/executive director of the museum Gwendolyn W.Elmore.
The thriving Victorian style dwelling did not always exist at its present-day location. The house was originally located on the corner of Ninth and Winn Streets, but it suffered abandonment and dilapidation over the years. The relocation and restoration of the home was made possible by the Arna Bontemps Foundation, Inc. through the office of the mayor in 1988; it was transformed into a museum and opened to the public in 1992.
“This is the first African American museum in Louisiana. It serves a great purpose for those in the community, ” said Joan Williams, administrative assistant of the museum.
“Our mission is to increase awareness of the literary legacy of Arna Wendell Bontemps,” said Elmore. “His writings were greatly influenced by his Alexandria, La. roots, and secondly, to promote awareness and appreciation of African culture and history. That is being accomplished in the programs in arts and humanities here.”
Bontemps is credited with writing more than 20 books, plays, poetry, children’s literature, biographies and anthologies. He also viewed and participated in the jazz, theater and literature movements occurring in Harlem at that time.
He received The Crisis Magazine Poetry Prize in 1926, Newbery Honor Book Award in 1949 and Jane Addams Children’s Book Award in 1956. The awards are just a nub of his mentionable lifetime achievements.
“He wrote in just about every genre,” said Elmore. “He was very close friends with Langston Hughes, and there is a book with the letters that were exchanged between Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes.His works are still influencing contemporary writers.”
A notable collaboration Bontemps had with Hughes is The Pasteboard Bandit, a children’s book. They also edited a widespread collection of poems by blacks and poems by nonblacks paying tribute, The Poetry of the Negro, which was published in 1949.
Hughes died in 1967, and Bontemps compiled Hold Fast to Dreams, a montage of poems by black and white writers that was circulated in 1969. The title of Bontemps’ compilation is the first line in Hughes’ poem, “Dreams”.
“Oxford University Press in the mid-’90s became interested in two of his unpublished stories for children,” said Elmore. “It also established an Arna Bontemps exhibit that goes with The Pasteboard Bandit that has traveled throughout the country.”
Bontemps also incorporated his childhood memories into his literary works. In his autobiographical essay, “Why I Returned”, he wrote: “My family was well-housed, well clothed and well-fed… in the house at the corner of Ninth and Winn streets in Alexandria, La. If we were not decorating a backyard bush with eggshells, we were driving in our buggy across the bridge to Pineville on the other side of the Red River.”
Bontemps’ parents were Paul Bismarck Bontemps and Caroline Pembrooke Bontemps, and his sister was Ruby Sarah. The now-museum served as the family’s home from 1902-1906; his family moved to California as a part of the great black migration out of the South.
Bontemps met his wife-to-be, Alberta Johnson, when he moved to Harlem in 1924; they would rear six children.
However, in his later years in his life, Bontemps would refer to “back home.”
“Mr. Bontemps died in the mid-1970s as I remember correctly,” stated Elmore, “All during their married life, he had reminisced about Alexandria and the house on the corner of Ninth and Winn Streets. This was filled with local color, but she had never been to Alexandria.”
According to Elmore, Bontemps’ wife mentioned to her that there were plans to return to his stomping grounds with their two sons, but Bontemps died of a heart attack in the process. When Bontemps’ wife had the opportunity to see the house, “she saw it as the house when Arna was living there,” Elmore said.
Arna Bontemps African-American Museum and Cultural Center
A white iron rail serves as a guide on both sides of the cracked, orange-brick steps to the mauve porch floor. A faded white wicker chair rests under a frameless window, and there is a locked door to the humanities room on the left side of the slanted roof, enclosed porch.
A plaque on the left side of the entrance reveals that the museum was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 13,1993.
“The Arna Bontemps African-American museum is a symbol of our past, our present and our future,” stated Elmore.
Once inside the museum lit by golden chandeliers, one can view pictures of Bontemps during various stages of his life.
A flameless fireplace cradling three logs with a large sketch of Bontemps hanging in a frame above the mantel can be seen in the hall of fame room. Photographs and a large collage of Bontemps’ father, mother, sister, five children and wife dance on the walls. An easel portraying him on the cover of The Crisis magazine stands adjacent to the fireplace.
Enchanting photographs of Bontemps’ work and a rectangular meeting table with five coffee brown chairs decorate the humanities room. The pictures depict illustrated covers of his children’s books, book signings and readings with children. Famous snapshots include Bontemps standing with Harold Jackman and Langston Hughes and another one of him meeting with Sidney Poitier at an airport.
The museum possesses the circular iron doorknobs and the floors of the original home, and both Williams and Elmore suggested that the floors are probably made of pine.
The museum boasts an onsite gift store and hosts miscellaneous programs including storytelling and school tours, and it will be hosting its 17th annual quiz bowl competition May 6-7 in three divisions for elementary, junior high and high school students. The awards to winners will be savings bonds and medals.
“Come get a feel of the rooms, and come be a part of the programs,” said Williams.
One must not leave the museum without hearing Elmore repeat her favorite quote from Bontemps’ book, Black Thunder.
“Time is not a river. Time is a pendulum… intricate patterns of recurrence in… experience and… in history,” said Elmore in an English professor’s voice.