"Auntie Reed was a Christian and made me go to church and Sunday school every Sunday."
- Langston Hughes, "The Big Sea"
The childhood church Hughes describes in his autobiographical book still stands in Lawrence, a red brick reminder of the historic poet's local roots.
Preservationists at St. Luke A.M.E. Church, Ninth and New York streets, say the music and spirit of old church spirituals here fueled the poet's life of words and rhythm.
Now, to capture that historic link, church officials have begun tentative plans to create a Langston Hughes Interpretive Center in St. Luke's basement.
But before any celebration of Hughes' life begins, officials have to deal with the reality of a near-100-year-old building that has borne the burden of weather and time.
The church needs work. And the work takes money.
"We need to have it in the bank," said Bill Tuttle, chairman of the St. Luke A.M.E. Second Century Fund, which raises money for the church.
To fund the restoration, Tuttle and church officials will search for cash to bring the Hughes exhibit to life and, in the process, breathe new life into the historic black church.
To even begin the restoration process, Tuttle said he imagined it would take at least a couple hundred thousand dollars. But, he said, some money is already earmarked for the project.
A grant program called Save America's Treasures has already appropriated $100,000 for the church restoration - that is, if the church can find matching funds.
To do that, Tuttle turned in a preliminary application for a $90,000 state Heritage Trust Fund grant in mid-January, but now needs another $24,000 to complete the application process.
"We have less than three weeks to raise the (money)," Tuttle said.
If Tuttle and the church can find that money and receive the heritage fund grant, total funding for the project could suddenly balloon to $214,000 - more than enough to begin the extensive renovation project needed to eventually house the Hughes exhibit.
With that money in hand, preservationists could begin working on the church in the same place they began in 1910 - the foundation.
A study conducted by Hernly and Associates, a Lawrence architecture firm, said St. Luke's old foundation was the necessary place to start renovation, especially if the Hughes exhibit will be housed in the basement there.
But the study suggested more. The stained glass needs replacing. The false interior roof, in place for decades, should be removed to reveal the original cathedral-style ceiling.
But, the Rev. Verdell Taylor said, first things first. The church needs solid footing to stand on, and, if the money is found, that will be first.
"We need to go about the business of restoring the church," Taylor said.
The actual substance of the church's eventual Hughes exhibit is still up for debate, church official Napoleon Crews said.
"We want to know, in terms of Langston Hughes, what the community does not know and wants to know," Crews said.
To do that, Crews said the church will call upon the research of Kansas University professors to tell them what information has already been presented to the community, and what is left to be discovered.
Then, he said, the interpretive center will likely go in at least two directions, one focused on local stories associated with an ongoing St. Luke oral history project, the other focused on Hughes artifacts from his time in Lawrence.
To get those artifacts, Crews, Tuttle and other officials asked lawmakers on the East Coast - where most Hughes archives are located - for help collecting items related to his childhood.
So far, Tuttle said, he has received pledges of support from Congressman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., whose district includes Hughes' longtime home of Harlem, and former President Bill Clinton, whose offices are now based in the Harlem area of New York City.
"He said to count him in," Tuttle said of the former president.
Besides artifacts, church officials envisioned a more interactive display of some of Hughes' work. Crews said that he imagined computerized displays where visitors could listen to professional readings of Hughes' poems on headphones.
But officials admit that much of their vision hinges on the condition of the church. Until restoration is at least under way, the Hughes project and grant money will be put on hold.
So now, church leaders will turn to the community for a three-week search for funds to help capture the memory of a young poet-in-waiting and the church he grew up in.
Local grants are doubtful, Crews said, so the search will have to begin elsewhere.
"We're just going to see if we can get the community involved in getting the money we need," Crews said.