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This Day In History: May 1st
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote over 100 poems and published several novels over her 40 year career. The Kansas native made history on May 1, 1950 when she became the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, Annie Allen. The book was published in 1949 and was her second poetry collection. Annie Allen told the story of a Black Chicago girl’s growth into womanhood and motherhood. She drew inspiration from Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid.
She was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, but her family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration. Brooks published her first poem in a children’s magazine at age 13 and by the age of 16, she had published approximately 75 poems. During this time she also got to connect with Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.
In 1935, Brooks graduated high school and enrolled in Wilson Junior College to major in English. She continued working on her craft and participated in poetry workshops at Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center. By the next decade, her work was gaining national attention and in 1943 she received an award from the Midwestern Writers’ Conference.
Brooks published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. It became a success and even led to her becoming a Guggenheim Fellow. Despite receiving praise for her first book, Brook’ second collection, Annie Allen, set the stage for her historic accomplishment in 1950.
Her other works include Maud Martha (1953), The Bean Eaters (1960), Riot (1969), Blacks (1987), and Children Coming Home (1991). In addition to publishing her writing, Brooks began teaching new generations of writers as a professor at Columbia College, Chicago State University, Northeastern Illinois University, Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin.
In 1968 she was named poet laureate for the state of Illinois. Brooks achieved another first in 1985 when she was appointed as the first black woman consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (now known as Poet Laureate).
Gwendolyn Brooks died of cancer on December 3, 2000, in Chicago, Illinois.