Historical Markers
Jessie Redmon Fauset Historical Marker
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Jessie Redmon Fauset

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
1853 N. 17th St., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

Like markerAlain LeRoy Locke, Jessie Redmon Fauset was present at the creation of the Harlem Renaissance. She was so essential to its birth, in fact, that the novelist and poet Langston Hughes, the most lyrical and enduring writer to emerge from that important flowering of African-American culture, deemed them both its “midwives.” Still, Fauset was there first.
Jessie Redmon Fauset; full length, seated, facing slightly left
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Jessie Redmon Fauset, circa 1934. 
As literary editor of The Crisis, the pioneering NAACP journal founded and overseen by markerW.E.B. Du Bois, Fauset helped mold the early works of writers like Hughes; used her pages to actively attract and support the voices of black women writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson; and hosted a prominent Harlem salon for artists, writers, and intellectuals. As a poet, essayist, and fiction writer, Fauset also played an enormous role in driving the Renaissance and shaping its thematic engine. As she observed in the first of her four novels, There Is Confusion, published in 1924, “The complex of color…every colored man feels it sooner or later.”
She was born in Fredericksville, New Jersey, near Camden, in 1882, but grew up in Philadelphia, where her father, a minister from an old Philadelphia family, moved with his seven children when his wife died shortly after Jessie's birth. Fauset was a studious child. She loved reading and language, and hoped to become a teacher. She set her eyes on attending Bryn Mawr, one of the nation’s leading women’s colleges, on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
Head and shoulders photograph of a man wearing a suit jacket and tie.
Arthur Huff Fauset, June 1942.
Despite excelling at Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she was the only black student in her class, Bryn Mawr, then all white, refused to break its color line for her. Instead, the admissions office steered Fauset toward the already integrated Cornell. There, Fauset shone. She majored in languages and, en route to her graduation in 1905, became one of the first African Americans inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the prestigious national honor society.
W. E. B. Dubois seated at a desk, in the office of The Crisis
W. E. B. Dubois seated in his office at The Crisis, New York, NY, circa 1924....
Accomplishments notwithstanding, Philadelphia—she would call it “the dear delight of my life” in one of her poems—refused her a position in its public school system. Undaunted, she took a one-year opening for a French and Latin teacher in Baltimore, then moved to an all-black high school in Washington, D.C., where, with the exception of a sabbatical to complete a masters’ degree in French at the University of Pennsylvania, she taught until 1919.
The classroom could not hold her vibrant mind, though. In 1912, Fauset began contributing poetry, short stories, reviews, translations, and essays to The Crisis. Du Bois was impressed enough to assign her a regular column. Then, in 1919, he wooed her to become the journal’s literary editor, a title she held until 1926.
Book store advertisement for There is Confusion by Jessie Redmon Fauset, Cane...
At The Crisis, Fauset was as invaluable as she was tireless. In addition to contributing a continuing stream of her own prose and poetry, including one of her most well-known poems, marker "La Vie C'est la Vie" she nurtured and published a host of emerging black writers. Fauset helped to cultivate the careers of Countee Cullen, Anne Spencer, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer, all leading authors and poets of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1920 and 1921, she took on another responsibility for Du Bois: editing and providing most of the content for The Brownies' Book, the NAACP’s monthly magazine for children. Both Du Bois and Fauset believed it was imperative for black children to be exposed to and taught to appreciate their heritage.
Still, Fauset needed a broader canvas on which to express herself. Tired of what she saw as the false representations of black life in fiction, she wrote her first novel, part of which she set in Philadelphia. Though race was essential to the plot of There Is Confusion (1924)—the underlying theme of all her novels was the black middle class trying to assert itself and escape the shadow of prejudice—it is less a novel of racial issues than a romance among black characters dealing with their own confusions on a variety of levels. Ironically, one of the novel’s most compelling confusions (at least for the first publisher she submitted it to) was that her black characters dealt with matters of the heart in the same ways whites did. The publisher’s rejection letter suggested that "white readers just don’t expect Negroes to be like this." A more progressive publisher accepted the book for what it was: an honest reflection of black society in the North and a harbinger of social change.
After the publication of Confusion, Fauset went off to Paris in 1924 to study at the Sorbonne, and visited Africa for the first time, sending dispatches back to The Crisis. She also wrote one of her most important essays, "The Gift of Laughter," a forceful exploration into why black actors were stereotyped into subservient, comic roles. Locke would include it in his groundbreaking anthology, The New Negro, a year later.
A woman wearing an emerald green dress sits in a chair.
Jessie Redmon Fauset, by Laura Wheeler Waring, 1945.
Fauset left The Crisis in 1926, in an unsuccessful attempt to join one of the big New York publishing houses as an editor. She opted, then, to return to the classroom, teaching French at New York’s DeWitt Clinton High School until 1944, and writing in her free time. In 1927, Countee Cullen featured Fauset in his anthology of African-American poets. In marker "Touché." she again addressed the complexity of interracial relationships. In 1929, she published her second and most successful novel,marker "Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral" —also set partially in Philadelphia—which examined both the duties of the black artist and, subtitle notwithstanding, the moral dilemma of light-skinned blacks passing as white.
Fauset would write two more novels, The Chinaberry Tree: A Comedy of American Life (1931) and Comedy, American Style (1933), both of which weighed in on genteel black society and broader issues of racism, sexism, and the social interactions between blacks and whites. Commercially and critically, neither lived up to its predecessors. Praised for her work as an editor and essay writer, Fauset found less success as a novelist after publication of Plum Bun, for readers and critics alike found her works and her upper-middle class characters too genteel, too bourgeois—in a sense, too Philadelphian.
After the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, "Old Guard" authors like Fauset were supplanted by more radical and militant voices. Despite these later criticisms about gentility, Fauset’s fictional works, essays, and poems contributed to the cultural awakening experienced by African Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century. She influenced and helped shape the careers of some of the literary giants of the New Negro Movement and left her own lasting imprint on black literature.
In 1944, Fauset and her husband, businessman Herbert Harris, whom she had married in 1929, crossed the Hudson River and settled in Montclair, N.J. When Harris died in 1958, Fauset returned to Philadelphia, where she lived with one of her half-brothers until her death in 1961. 
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