An Ordinary Shawl with an Extraordinary Story

Sometimes the story of how we acquire an object is just as fascinating as the object itself. So is the case of a plain shawl donated in 1943.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

James Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. Hughes was from a prominent African-American family with Ohio connections.  In 1835, his grandfather was the first African-American to attend Oberlin College. Hughes lived with his grandmother until he was 13.  After moving back in with his mother and her husband, the family eventually resided in Cleveland, Ohio. Hughes began writing poetry while attending Cleveland’s Central High School.  He published poems in The Belfry Owl, a school magazine.

In 1920, Hughes left for Mexico, returning to the states a year later to attend Columbia University in New York City. He left Columbia in 1922 due to increasing racial prejudices. Hughes continued to be active writing poetry in the Harlem area. After spending time in England, Hughes moved to Washington D.C. in 1924. He was working as a busboy at hotel restaurant when he met poet Vachel Lindsay. Hughes showed Lindsay some of his poetry, who ultimately used his connections to promote Hughes’ poetry.

Cover of A Pictorial History of the Negro in America by Langston Hughes.

Cover of A Pictorial History of the Negro in America by Langston Hughes from the Society’s library.

After receiving a scholarship, Hughes graduate from Lincoln University in 1929. He published his first book, Not Without Laughter, shortly after. For years, he frequently toured the US, Europe, and the USSR reading his poetry and short stories. Hughes became one of the best known poets in the United States, publishing countless volumes of poetry, short stories, and plays. On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes died from complications of prostate cancer.

In addition to once calling Ohio home, Hughes made a lasting contribution to Ohio History.  On April 30, 1943, Langston Hughes donated this shawl (H 6806) used by Sheridan Leary to the Ohio Historical Society.  Sheridan Leary was an African-American harnesses maker from Oberlin, Ohio who was killed during John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry. Leary was the first husband of Hughes’ grandmother, Mary Patterson.

Shawl, call number  H 6806, donated to the Ohio Historical Society by poet Langston Hughes.

Shawl, call number H 6806, donated to the Ohio Historical Society by poet Langston Hughes.

In his note to the society, Hughes explained, “It (the shawl) was worn at John Brown’s Raid where Sheridan Leary was killed and since his widow, who was my grandmother, states that it had been handed down in the Leary family from Sheridan’s grandfather, I think we would be safe in dating the shawl at thirty to forty years preceding John Brown’s raid, certainly in the first quarter of the 1800’s.” The shawl was reportedly found in the mud after the raid and returned to Leary’s grieving widow.

Closeup of shawl.

Closeup of shawl.

The shawl demonstrates the need for good documentation of an object; without a provenance, it would appear to be very ordinary.  With its connection to the raid on Harper’s Ferry and Langston Hughes the shawl is one of the most treasured objects in our collection.

Have you ever come across an object with a fascinating story of how it got to where it is?

Emily Lang, History Curator


A&E Networks Television. “Langston Hughes Biography.” (accessed February 10, 2014).

Hughes, Langston, Arnold Rampersad, David E. Roessel, and Benny Andrews. Langston Hughes. New York: Sterling Pub., 20061994.

The Poetry Foundation. “Langston Hughes.” The Poetry Foundation. (accessed February 12, 2014).

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4 Responses to An Ordinary Shawl with an Extraordinary Story

  1. Anna Worden Bauersmith says:

    Reblogged this on If I Had My Own Blue Box: and commented:
    Read all the way through to the shawl.

  2. Pingback: An Ordinary Shawl with an Extraordinary Story | If I Had My Own Blue Box:

  3. Beth Odell says:

    You write ” . . .without a provenance, it would appear to be very ordinary.” So true! And without proper provenance, probably only of great interest to a collector – it would not meet the level of evidence required of inclusion in an historical society collection. I find it extremely ironic, then, that the Ohio Historical Society chose the McKinley Museum’s First Lady Ida McKinley Dress Restoration Project as a History Fund grant recipient. The dresses have only myth and wishes as evidence, yet with each codification (such as the grant), the “truth” for future generations becomes indelibly established. Soon, reversing the mistake will become next to impossible, if it has not already. Surely there were other projects more worthy of support than the McKinley Museum’s dress project. Perhaps one with provenance and a powerful story, such as this shawl. The McKinley effort lacks both and is not worthy of the award.

  4. Pingback: Lewis Sheridan Leary’s Shawl | Steam at Harper's Ferry

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