Hughes's father had agreed to pay for his college tuition, on the (soon-abandoned) condition that he study engineering. In 1921, Hughes thus set off for Columbia University, located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City. Just on the other side of the island was Harlem. Black residents had been drawn to that northeast Manhattan neighborhood ever since an enterprising black real estate agent, Phillip Payton, Jr., advertised the mostly-vacant area as a black Mecca following the 1903 real estate crash. By the time Langston Hughes arrived, Harlem was in the throes of the thriving period of arts and literature known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes fell in love with Harlem, but not with Columbia. He felt that the mostly-white institution was discriminatory. He quit just one year after he began—1922—and instead took a job as a crewman aboard the S.S. Malone so he could see the world. Hughes traveled to West Africa and to Europe. He spent six months working as a busboy in Paris, a city with a thriving community of African-American expatriate artists who found France less racist than their home country. All the while, Hughes wrote poetry. His influences included Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, and Laurence Dunbar, poets whose elegant language and images explored issues of identity.
In 1924, Hughes decided to head back to the States, to Washington, D.C. He landed an office job as a personal assistant to a scholar at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, but soon decided that he preferred menial work that left more time and energy for his poetry. Hughes was working as a busboy at the Waldman Park Hotel when he noticed the poet Vachel Lindsay, one of his favorites, dining alone. As he was clearing the plates away, Hughes slipped a stack of his own poetry onto Lindsay's table. Gutsy? Sure. But it worked. Lindsay read the work and put Hughes in touch with editors at Alfred A. Knopf publishing house. Langston Hughes was about to make it.