The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture, and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
The family beginnings of novelist, essayist, and literary critic Ralph Ellison centered on his mother, Ida Milsap Ellison; his brother, Herbert; and mentors he found among his teachers. Ellison’s experiences of hardship and encouragement in his early life helped direct him toward a college education at Tuskegee Institute. He used his three years there as background in his iconic 1952 novel, Invisible Man, which he wrote in the 1940s. As he entered an independent adulthood in New York City, he found new brothers-in-spirit among writers, artists, and activists in Harlem—and one evening in June 1944, when ideas for crafting Invisible Man were still swirling in his mind, he met Fanny McConnell at Frank’s restaurant. The two fell in love over dinner and conversation. They wed in 1946 and remained married for the rest of Ellison’s life.
Ralph Ellison’s coming of age was both loving and challenging. He was born March 1, 1913, in a family boardinghouse in Oklahoma City. His brother, Herbert, arrived as a newborn in June 1916. Their parents, Lewis and Ida Ellison, had moved from their native South Carolina and Georgia in 1910, not long after Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory became the state of Oklahoma. As they took up residence in Oklahoma City, the state was—as it remains today—the sovereign home to many tribal nations. It had also long been a post-Emancipation destination for Black settlers, especially those seeking areas where they could establish small Black communities and farms.
In Ellison’s early childhood, Jim Crow codes and practices of white supremacist racial segregation were well in force. His mother worked in domestic service and his father made a living delivering ice for use for cold storage of food. Just weeks after the birth of Herbert, tragedy struck the family. Ellison was sitting atop his father’s ice wagon when Lewis was injured in an accidental fall down the steps to a cellar. He died soon after of infection due to internal injuries. While the grieving Ida regrouped, three-year-old Ralph went to live for a time with his grandfather, Alfred Ellison, in Abbeville, South Carolina. The impressive patriarch made a distinct impression upon young Ralph. He later wrote about his grandfather in his letters and spoke about his influence in his last public address, in 1992, when most of his own life and stellar career was behind him.
Ralph Ellison started his formal education at the segregated Frederick Douglass School in Oklahoma City in 1919. In 1921, the year of the race riot during which white mobs attacked the Black business and residential district of Tulsa, his mother Ida turned to extended family. She moved with her boys for a short time to Gary, Indiana, where her brother worked in a steel mill, and she hoped for better prospects for her sons. Poverty persisted and Ida was soon looking for work again in Oklahoma. She married James Ammons there in 1924. In the year and a half he lived after the wedding, Ammons taught young Ralph to hunt birds and small game. This was a skill Ellison continued to use to feed himself and loved ones in the following years, and a life lesson he refigured in imagery of fauna in his later creative writing. His youth in Oklahoma was also a time when Ellison developed his deep love of language, classical music, and jazz. Listening to Count Basie and Coleman Hawkins were among his inspirations, as were the harmony lessons he received from another important woman in his life, his music teacher and Frederick Douglass School principal Zelia Breaux.
In late 1929, Ellison’s twice-widowed mother married a third time, to John Bell. The difficulties of that marriage, along with encouragement from Breaux, helped the teenage Ellison set his sights on studying music at Tuskegee. His experience and need for money in this period at school in the early 1930s is documented in correspondence with his mother, brother, and stepfather. “This is a beautiful place and it looks like a small town,” he said, while still in awe of the campus, in a “Dear Mama” letter written on June 26, 1933. He then asked his mother to send hats, a raincoat, towels, and other practical items, and “All the Books on Music and all the music paper” he’d left behind. On July 4, 1933, he wrote John Bell to say that his beloved trumpet had arrived in good condition. Lessons at Tuskegee, and his continuing identity struggles with social caste and economic hardship, resulted in a life transition for Ellison. He left Tuskegee after three years and made a shift from Oklahoma City to New York City as his chosen home.
Arriving in Harlem in early July 1936, Ellison developed a family of choice. It started by serendipity the moment he ran into poet and writer Langston Hughes outside the Harlem YMCA soon after Ellison’s arrival in the city. It continued with sculpture lessons from Richmond Barthé, and was solidified when he met novelist and essayist Richard Wright, then an editor at the Harlem office of the Daily Worker. In a July 17, 1936 letter to Hughes, he laughingly reported he was following Hughes’s advised “formula” with success, namely being nice to people and letting them pay for his meals. He reported to his mother in September 1936 that he was “working and studying” and that one of the short-term jobs he obtained was with the sculptor Augusta Savage. On August 30, 1937, he wrote to Ida about the effects of the Depression. He was disheartened by the widespread joblessness and economic disparity (“I am disgusted with things as they are and the whole system in which we live”). He referred to the difficulties of a lifetime of minimum wage employment, and how his father toiled every day of his life, and his mother’s efforts to find better work “From Okla. To Gary, to Okla. only there was no work. . .”. He observed that despite these conditions, the rich were trying to end New Deal programs. And still, he went on to write beautifully of city life and the change in the seasons, the gulls flying overhead, kids flying kites, and the full fruit stands in some neighborhoods, and the picket lines in others.
It was one of the last letters he would write to his mother. Ellison’s efforts at a new life were interrupted by sudden news that Ida Bell had taken severely ill in Dayton, Ohio. Ellison rushed onto a train from New York and arrived in time to be at her bedside when she died, unconscious, on October 17, 1937. Ellison unexpectedly found himself with family responsibilities. He served as a parental figure for his brother Herbert, as they shared the winter together in Dayton homeless, taking shelter in the automobiles of friends or at nighttime in closed shops or an attorney’s office.
Through it all, Ellison observed his calling. He continued to write, setting up a typewriter and producing drafts of short stories and an intended novel, and corresponding with Wright in New York, keeping his dream of an intellectual life alive. When Ellison returned to New York City, it was to do urban folklore fieldwork for the U.S. Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project and write reviews and articles for the New Masses. His first published short story, “Slick Gonna Learn,” was published in the September issue of Direction in 1939. He was on his way as a writer.
A Note on Resources:
The Ralph Ellison Papers collection, including correspondence, drafts of Ellison’s writings, and evidence of his full life, friendships, and career, are held by the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, as are the records of the U.S. Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project folklore project. Letters referred to here are among those included in The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner (New York: Random House, 2019). Biographies of Ellison include Ralph Ellison by Arnold Rampersad (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).