John F. Matheus

1887 –

John Frederick Matheus was born on September 10, 1887, in Keyser, West Virginia. He was one of four sons born to Mary Susan (née Brown) and John William Matheus, who was a bank messenger and a part-time worker in a tannery. Matheus received his early education at home in Steubenville, Ohio. He graduated from high school in 1905. In the year after graduation, he went to work as a bookkeeper and an assistant to a plumber. Matheus then attended Adelbert College of Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland. In 1910, Matheus graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree. In 1921, he earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College, having studied to be an instructor in French. In 1924, Matheus visited Cuba. A year later, he spent a summer studying at the University of Paris and traveled through southern France, Italy, and Switzerland. After he returned to the U.S., he studied for a short period at the University of Chicago in 1927, between teaching duties.  

Matheus started publishing verse during his early youth, noting in the autobiography that he contributed to Caroling Dusk (Harper & Brothers, 1927) that “[t]he daily papers of [his] home town used to print [his] puerile efforts when copy ran low.” He wrote numerous poems during his lifetime, many of which remained unpublished. He later published poems, short stories, sketches, and a play in both Opportunity and Crisis magazines and won prizes and honorable mentions from both publications. His short story “Fog,” which won first prize in an Opportunity magazine short fiction contest in 1925, was anthologized that year in Alain Locke’s The New Negro (Albert and Charles Boni, 1925). His short story “Swamp Moccasin” won first prize in a Crisis magazine contest the following year.

In partnership with the composer and violinist Clarence Cameron White, Matheus wrote the opera Ouanga!, which chronicled the rise and fall of the revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution. In preparation for the project, both Matheus and White traveled to Haiti and remained on the island for six weeks, researching musical materials for the libretto. The opera was first performed in concert in Chicago in 1932, but was not fully staged until 1949, when it premiered in South Bend, Indiana. In the 1950s, the opera was performed in New Orleans and Philadelphia. In New York City, it was performed in concert at both Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. Though he never published a collection of poetry, Matheus published around fifty short stories and five plays during his lifetime. In 1974, he privately published a collection of his short fiction, titled A Collection of Short Stories, edited Leonard A. Slade Jr. 

In addition to his work in literature and music, Matheus was a faculty member at West Virginia Collegiate Institute (now, the historically-Black  West Virginia State University), where he was a professor of Romance languages from 1922 until his retirement in 1958. He was also a contributor to newspapers based in both Charleston, West Virginia, and Cleveland. In 1930, he traveled to Liberia. There he served as secretary to Opportunity magazine’s founding editor, Charles S. Johnson, and was an American member of the League of Nations’ commission investigating slavery in the West African country.

Matheus’s first teaching job was at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Florida A&M University) in Tallahassee, where he was an administrator and an instructor in mathematics, Latin, and English from 1911 to 1922. He also held teaching appointments at Dillard University, Hampton Institute, Kentucky State University, Morris Brown College, and Texas Southern University, 

John Frederick Matheus died in Tallahassee on February 21, 1983. Matheus was the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance. Some of his poetry was posthumously anthologized in Double-take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology (Rutgers University Press, 2001), edited by Maureen Honey and Venetria K. Patton.