Gwendolyn Bennett, writer and artist, played an active role in the African-American arts Community for over twenty years. As an artist and teacher, she nurtured and fostered the talents of young African-American artists. Although Bennett never published her own volume of poetry, she was also one of the most revered poets of her era. Gwendolyn Bennett gave of herself to the Harlem community and helped energize the Harlem Renaissance.
Gwendolyn Bennett was born to Joshua and Maime Bennett on July 8, 1902 in Giddings, Texas. They lived in Nevada on an Indian Reservation the first four or five years of her life. They then moved to Washington D.C.. Her parents divorced shortly after the move. Gwendolyn's father kidnapped her when she was seven. They didn't stay in any one place for very long, but didn't stray outside Pennsylvania.
Bennett did well in school. She was an honors student in high school. She attended Pratt Institute, as well as taking classes at Columbia University. She was working towards a career in the fine arts. Her studies at both of these institutions led to work as a graphic artist in 1925. She also worked at Howard University where she taught fine arts.
Bennett was an early participant in Harlem literary circles. In the early 1920s she studied fine art Pratt Institute and took writing classes at Columbia University. She served as an evening volunteer at Harlem’s 135th Street Library, helping to arrange poetry readings, book discussions, and other cultural events. In fact it was Bennett, along with her librarian friend Regina Anderson, who gave Charles Johnson the idea for the Civic Club dinner.
During her undergraduate education, Bennett’s poem “Nocturne” was published in Crisis in November, 1923, and in December of the same year, her poem “Heritage” was included in Opportunity, a magazine published by the National Urban League. In 1925, Bennett continued her fine arts education at Academic Julian and Ecole du Pantheon in Paris. During her studies there, Bennett worked with a variety of mediums, including watercolor, oil, woodcuts, pen and ink, and batik. This was the beginning of her development as a graphic artist. However, most of her pieces from this period were destroyed in 1926 in a fire at her stepmother’s home.
During 1923 to 1931, Gwendolyn Bennett started a support group that provided a warm, supportive place for the young writers of Harlem that provided sustained association with their peers. Included in this group were Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Eric Walrond, Helene Johnson, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Aaron Douglas, Alta Douglass, Rudolph Fisher and Zora Neale Hurston.
The group was designed to motivate these young writers to support and encourage each other and were also, in turn, encouraged to aspire to the levels of more established scholars such as Charles S. Johnson, Alain Locke, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, and James Weldon Johnson. Bennett said in a 1979 interview that, "nothing like this particular life in which you saw the same group of people over and over again. You were always glad to see them. You always had an exciting time when you were with them." This Harlem circle that Gwendolyn developed helped her sustain her steady connection with the Renaissance in New York throughout a period of her life.
Gwendolyn Bennett moved farther away from Harlem when she married Dr. AlBert Joseph Jackson in 1927 and moved to Eustis, Florida. Jackson died in 1936 and Bennett moved back to New York. In 1940, Bennett became involved in an interracial marriage with Richard Crosscup which was not socially acceptable at Bennett's time. Harlem was Bennett's passion however and during the late 1930s and the 1940s she remained in the arts and also served as a member of the Harlem Artists Guild in 1935. The Harlem Community Arts Center was under her leadership from 1939 to 1944. During this time, Bennett was also active on the board of the Negro Playwright's Guild and involved with the development of the George Washington Carver Community School.
Gwendolyn Bennett faded from the public eye during the late-1940s but she remained close to the hub of busy Harlem in New York and her fellow writers. She began working for the Consumers Union during the later years of her life. Her retirement occurred in 1968 and moved with her husband, Crosscup, to Kutztown, Pennsylvania where they opened an antique shop. Her husband died in 1980, due to heart failure, and Bennett died on May 30, 1981 at the Reading County Hospital.