A BLACK HISTORY MOMENT
Remembering the Remarkable Author, Ann Petry
—By Arlene Davis-Rudd—
The month of February has come, again. During this month, this writer has always looked forward to our Nation celebrating outstanding Black Americans who have achieved and accomplished their highest goals throughout their lifetimes. Award-winning author and writer Ann Petry, a Connecticut native, happens to be one of those incredible and special persons who is deserving of this kind of recognition. She has been given accolades, awards, honors and the highest of praises as an American novelist who became the first black woman writer with book sales topping over a million copies for her novel, The Street.
Ann Petry was born in 1908 and lived a life of privilege. Her serious thinking about becoming a professional writer first began in high school when her English teacher read her essay to the class and commented on it with the words: “I honestly believe that you could be a writer if you wanted to.”
Her family wanted her to become a pharmacist. Her parents belonged to the black minority in the small town of Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Her father was a prominent pharmacist and her mother was a well-respected shop owner and hair dresser. Ann and her sister were raised in the classic New England tradition: “a study of efficiency, thrift and utility. Even though they were sheltered by their parents, they were filled with ambitions that they might not have entertained had they lived in a city along with thousands of poor blacks stuck in demeaning jobs.
“The family had none of the trappings of the middle class until Ms. Petry was well into adulthood. Before her mother became a business woman, she worked in a factory, and her sister and Ann’s aunts worked as maids.”
Ann Petry was born Ann Lane. After going to college and graduating from Connecticut College of Pharmacy, in early New Haven Ms. Lane was introduced to my dad who owned and operated the Harlem Barber Shop on the famous Dixwell Avenue in New Haven, where blacks and others were a huge part of his success story. Black merchants owned and operated small businesses such as beauty shops, doctors’ offices, gas stations, bars and restaurants, ice cream parlors, black churches, funeral parlors, and other small shops, as well. They were seen as successful merchants who were admired and respected, without question.
Because my dad, a graduate of Shaw University in Raleigh NC, had developed a close relationship with the small group of black males who attended Yale University and came to his famous barbershop on Dixwell Avenue on a regular basis, he decided to introduce them to black publications that might hold their interest. On Wednesdays, he, along with his other five barbers, would take the day off. It was on Fridays that he offered free haircuts to the black students at the University as long as they produced an ID.
The students appeared quite interested while waiting for their haircuts as my dad, Mr. John W. Davis, made sure that any available black newspapers or books or other black literature written by black authors, was made available to them to read. The many publications were well-received. Each would be spread separately on a large table for them to enjoy. There were several students who were first introduced to the black experience at Mr. Davis’ friendly barbershop.
Ms. Petry was introduced to my dad by one of the graduate students at Yale. From time to time, she would take time out to visit my dad’s inviting barbershop. When it was discovered that her book, The Street, was on Best Sellers’ lists across the country, he was anxious to purchase it for his barbershop and read it beforehand. My dad seemed most proud of her. She was pleased with my dad’s literary offerings to the Yale students. They remained friends until his untimely death. She was brilliant and humble.
After completing her studies and continuing her writings, she married a gentleman by the name of George Petry of New Iberia, Louisiana, which brought her to New York. She not only wrote articles for newspapers, such as “The Amsterdam News” or “ The People’s Voice,” she published pieces in the NAACP’s, “The Crisis Magazine.”
On a regular basis, Ms. Petry also worked after school in an After School program in Harlem. It was during this period that she experienced and understood what the majority of the black population of the United States had to go through in their everyday life. Traveling through the streets of Harlem, living for the time among large numbers of poor blacks, seeing black neglected children up close. Petry’s early years in New York led her to put her experiences to paper. Her daughter, Liz, explained to the Washington Post that “Her mom’s way of dealing with the problem was to write this book, The Street, which was something that people who had grown up in Harlem couldn’t do. The Street, published in 1946 by the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, was Ms. Petry’s most popular novel with book sales exceeding one million copies.
Back in Old Saybrook, in 1947, Ms. Petry worked on Country Place, The Narrows in 1953 and other stories and books for children, but they have never achieved the same success as her first book, The Street. The remarkable Ms. Petry passed away in 1997 at the age of 89.
Information from Wikipedia and various newspaper archives assisted in the writing of this article.