Harlem Renaissance writer and Fisk University librarian Arnaud W. Bontemps was born in Louisiana in 1902 but grew up in Los Angeles after his family moved to California when he was three. In 1923 Bontemps graduated from Pacific Union College; three years later he married Alberta Johnson. They had six children.
Bontemps's writing career flourished during the 1920s and 1930s as his teaching and writing became associated with the Harlem Renaissance. He initially taught at Harlem Academy and won awards from both the National Urban League and the NAACP for his poems. In 1931 his first novel, God Sends Sunday, was published. This later spawned the Broadway musical, St. Louis Woman, which became a star vehicle for Pearl Bailey. Bontemps left New York to accept a position at Oakwood Junior College in Huntsville, Alabama, and his writing interests turned to historical novels. Black Thunder, an acclaimed novel about black uprisings, was published in 1936. Two years later, the Julius Rosenwald Fund gave him a fellowship to study in the Caribbean.
The late 1930s and early 1940s were pivotal years in Bontemps's career. In 1941 he edited W. C. Handy's autobiography, Father of the Blues. He began his graduate studies, worked with the Illinois Writers Project, and in 1943 received his MLS degree from the University of Chicago. With that degree in hand and his reputation in literary circles secured, Bontemps became the head librarian and director of University Relations at Fisk University in 1943. He played the key role of developing the library's significant collection of African American resources from his colleagues in both the literary and music fields. He continued to write; during the 1950s he published a series of biographies of George Washington Carver and Frederick Douglass. In 1949 Bontemps edited The Poetry of the Negro with Langston Hughes, and they collaborated again on The Book of Negro Folklore nine years later. Bontemps's The Story of the Negro earned the Jane Addams Award in 1956. Through his writing and editing Bontemps became one of the key figures in the mid-twentieth-century development of African American literature and history.
Bontemps retired from Fisk in 1965, and the following year he accepted a position at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. His writing continued to focus on historical topics; his Great Slave Narratives (1966) is an important collection of primary documents for scholars and students interested in the field of African American history. From 1969 to 1971 he curated the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University. Bontemps returned to Nashville in 1971 as writer-in-residence at Fisk. He died in Nashville on June 4, 1973, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Arthur P. Davis, From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960 (1974); Linda T. Wynn, “Arnaud Wendell Bontemps,” in Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee (1996), 14-15