In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks of Chicago became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 1968, the Illinois General Assembly asked her to become the Poet Laureate of Illinois after the death of Carl Sandburg who had been named to that post in 1962.
Gwendolyn was born on June 17, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas and her family moved to the South Side of Chicago shortly after her birth. During the Depression, she attended three different high schools, all with different racial dynamics. They were at that time the mostly white Hyde Park High School, the mostly black Wendell Phillips High School, and finally the integrated Englewood High School.
In 1936, Gwendolyn graduated from the then new Woodrow Wilson Junior College at 6800 S. Wentworth. The school's name was changed in 1969 to Kennedy-King College in honor of two national leaders assassinated in 1968, Sen. Robert Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to Kenny Jackson Williams in Modern American Poetry Magazine, the next years were the most important of her life in shaping her writing career. Few Chicagoans today understand the international importance of Hariet Monroe and her small-circulation Poetry Magazine that was founded in Chicago early in the 20th Century. The tiny magazine was considered the most prestigious venue in the world for any poet and it gave a tremenous boost to Illinois poets such as Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, and Vachel Lindsay. The magazine paradoxically transformed the rough and unrefined "city of the big shoulders" into the world capital of poetry. Williams writes about Brooks:
"Her profound interest in poetry informed much of her early life. "Eventide," her first poem, was published in American Childhood Magazine in 1930. A few years later she met James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, who urged her to read modern poetry--especially the work of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and e. c. cummings--and who emphasized the need to write as much and as frequently as she possibly could. By 1934 Brooks had become an adjunct member of the staff of the Chicago Defender and had published almost one hundred of her poems in a weekly poetry column."
"In 1938 she married Henry Blakely and moved to a kitchenette apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Between the birth of her first child, Henry, Jr., in 1940 and the birth of Nora in 1951, she became associated with the group of writers involved in Harriet Monroe's still-extant Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. From this group she received further encouragement, and by 1943 she had won the Midwestern Writers Conference Poetry Award."
"In 1945 her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (published by Harper and Row), brought her instant critical acclaim. She was selected one of Mademoiselle magazine's "Ten Young Women of the Year," she won her first Guggenheim Fellowship, and she became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her second book of poems, Annie Allen (1949), won Poetry magazine's Eunice Tietjens Prize. In 1950 Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. From that time to the present, she has seen the recipient of a number of awards, fellowships, and honorary degrees usually designated as Doctor of Humane Letters."
"President John Kennedy invited her to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962. In 1985 she was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Just as receiving a Pulitzer Prize for poetry marked a milestone in her career, so also did her selection by the National Endowment for the Humanities as the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer, the highest award in the humanities given by the federal government."
"Her first teaching job was a poetry workshop at Columbia College (Chicago) in 1963. She went on to teach creative writing at a number of institutions including Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin."
Gwendolyn Brooks died on Dec. 3, 2000. In 2003, the Illinois State Library in Springfield was renamed as the Gwendolyn Brooks Illinois State Library in her honor. For a sample of some poems, prose, and essays on the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, click here to see her home page on the Modern American Poetry Web Site.