In 1941, the New York Public Library (NYPL) had this building constructed to replace the older and smaller 135th Street Branch located directly to the south; the new facility took the name of the original branch, despite being located on 136th Street. A year later, prominent Harlem Renaissance intellectual Alain Locke spoke at the dedication ceremony. In September 1951, the library was renamed for poet Countee Cullen (1903-1946), becoming the first NYPL branch — and perhaps the earliest public building in the city — to be named in honor of an African American. (Although adjacent to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research library of the NYPL, the Countee Cullen Branch operates as a separate library.)
Cullen, who frequented the original 135th Street Branch, was one of the few leading members of the Harlem Renaissance who grew up in Harlem. Born Countee LeRoy Porter, he changed his last name when Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, the influential pastor of Harlem’s Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, and his wife Carolyn, unofficially adopted him at age 15. Earning acclaim in literature at DeWitt Clinton High School (then located at 899 Tenth Avenue in Manhattan), New York University, and Harvard University, the young Cullen, “more than any other black literary figure of his generation, was being touted and bred to become a major crossover literary figure,” writes author Gerald Early, who also notes: “If any event signaled the coming of the Harlem Renaissance, it was the precocious success of this rather shy black boy. … If the aim of the Harlem Renaissance was, in part, the reinvention of the native-born Negro as a being who can be assimilated while decidedly retaining something called ‘a racial self-consciousness,’ then Cullen fit the bill.”
In 1925, Cullen published his first book of poems, Color, which soon after was one of the 135th Street Library’s earliest acquisitions for its newly-created Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints. The latter half of the 1920s was his most prolific as a poet. By about 1922, Cullen had confided in Locke, who became a kind of father figure, about his attraction to men. Locke introduced him to Edward Carpenter’s gay-affirming Ioläus (1917), which helped the young poet embrace his same-sex desires. In a letter to Locke, Cullen wrote:
“It opened up for me soul windows which had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural. I loved myself in it.”
Though closeted and married twice to women, Cullen was likely gay rather than bisexual. He had sexual relationships with men throughout his adult life and dedicated poems to his lovers or friends with whom he was infatuated. Many of Cullen’s poems have coded gay language, including “Tableau” (dedicated to his former white lover, Donald Duff, after his death), “Fruit of the Flower,” “For a Poet,” “To a Brown Boy” (dedicated to Langston Hughes), “More Than a Fool’s Song” (dedicated to his then-lover Edward Perry), “The Black Christ,” “Yet Do I Marvel,” and “Song in Spite of Myself.”
In addition to his literary accomplishments, Cullen was considered a long-time friend of the 135th Street Branch and was actively involved in educating black youth before his untimely death at age 42. From 1934 until his death, Cullen was a teacher — most notably to James Baldwin — at Frederick Douglass Junior High School (now Frederick Douglass Academy) at 140 West 140th Street. An estimated 3,000 people, including Locke, attended his funeral at Salem Methodist Episcopal Church.
Before the library’s construction, this site was occupied by the rowhouse of millionaire heiress A’Lelia Walker. Her lavish parties during the Harlem Renaissance were well known for its many gay, lesbian, and bisexual attendees, including Cullen.