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John Frederick Matheus

Writer and scholar John Frederick Matheus (September 10, 1887-February 19, 1983) was born in Keyser. When he was a youth, his family moved to Steubenville, Ohio, and some of the settings of Matheus’s short stories are in the West Virginia-Ohio-Pennsylvania area. Other works are based on folktales learned about during his travels in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Matheus graduated from Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1910 and received an A.M. degree from Columbia in 1921. He later studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Chicago. From 1922 until his retirement in 1958, Matheus taught foreign languages at West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University). While at the school, he served for a brief period on a U.S-League of Nations commission investigating slavery in Liberia.

Matheus was active during the period of the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American arts and literature in the 1920s. He wrote poetry, plays, and short stories that focused on themes and characters of importance to African-Americans. His plays in particular dealt with the hardships and exploitation characteristic of the black race in that era. Matheus also was a writer for newspapers in Charleston and Cleveland.

Although Matheus was more interested in playwriting, his short stories garnered greater literary success. His short story ‘‘Fog’’ won first place in the Opportunity magazine short story contest in 1925, and ‘‘Swamp Moccasin’’ received first prize in the Crisis magazine short story contest in 1926.

The opera Ouanga! was written and composed by Matheus and black composer-violinist Clarence Cameron White, who was named director of music at West Virginia State College in 1924. The opera is an account of the life of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the slave who led a revolution in Haiti and became its leader in the early 19th century. Ouanga! was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall. Matheus died in Florida.

Written by Judie Smith