Ann Lane Petry

Jul 7th, 2014 | By | Category: Activism, Arts & Entertainment, Education, Social Sciences
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Ann Lane Petry

1908-1997 Ann Lane Petry’s literacy talent exposed readers to issues of oppression and prejudice facing female black Americans. She was a distinguished novelist and short story writer as well as a civic activist. Her novel, The Street, was the first written by an African American that sold over one million copies.

Experience Turns to Story

Petry was born on October 12, 1908, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a predominantly white middle-class seaside neighborhood. Her parents, Peter C. Lane and Bertha James Lane, held significant stature in the community Petry’s father was a pharmacist and owned drugstores in Old Saybrook and nearby Lyme. Her mother was a podiatrist, although she also tried her luck as a hairdresser, manufacturer, and businesswoman. Petry hailed from four generations of African Americans living in New England. She grew up hearing stories of her ancestors’ hardships, which eventually became central to her writings. Petry’s mother often read to her, which fueled her passion for literature. As she became old enough to understand the dynamics of racism and inequality, Petry determined to find a way to raise her voice in support of the struggle of the black female in America. Her family was supportive and encouraged her to stand strong against bigotry

Petry began writing while in high school by penning short stories and one-act plays, but much of her time was demanded at the family pharmacy. After graduating from Old Saybrook High School in 1929, she went to the Connecticut College of Pharmacy and earned a graduate degree at age 23. For the next several years, she worked at the family drugstores while continuing to wnte short stories. In 1938, at age 30, Petry married George David Petry, a writer of mysteries from Louisiana. She then left the pharmacy field and moved to New York City with her husband to actively pursue a literary career. Petry took a job selling advertising space for the Harlem Amsterdam News and worked there for the next four years. She then became a reporter for a community weekly, the People’s Voice. Petry edited the women’s column, and covered social events and news stories. She and her husband immersed themselves in Harlem life and became aware of the struggles plaguing the urban residents including unsuitable housing, staggering unemployment, racial oppression, and sexual harassment. These issues influenced Petry’s writings, and to broaden her palate, she enrolled in writing courses at Columbia University She established a black women’s advocacy group called Negro Women, Incorporated, where she worked to empower Harlem teens and garnered even more material as sources for her writing. From 1938 until 1944, Petry wrote numerous short stories for literary journals. Her first published piece, a romantic suspense story, appeared in December 1939, when it was published in the Baltimore Afro-American. The story, Marie of the Cabin Club, was published under a pseudonym, Arnold Petri. Petry disguised her name and gender, reserving her true identity for more serious works.

Branching Out as a Writer

Petry’s first significant literary appearance came in 1943, at age 35, when her short story, On Saturday, the Siren Sounds at Noon, was accepted into the NAACP’s monthly magazine Crisis. This achievement brought her to the attention of the prominent publishing house, Houghton Mifflin, and served as the turning point in Petry’s literary career. Impressed with Petry’s skill, the publisher gave her a $2,400 literary fellowship and encouraged her to write a novel. In 1946, Houghton Mifflin published the first of three Petry novels. The Street is a story of a Harlem woman who struggles to work and raise her son. The novel became a national best seller and sold more than a million copies, the first book by an African American woman to do so. That same year, Petry was honored with the Best American Short Story Award of 1946 for Like a Winding Sheet. A year later, she published her second novel, Country Place, a portrayal of a white New England town, written in contrast to the deplorable living conditions of Harlem depicted in The Street. Both novels illustrated troubled conditions but from the perspective of two different class structures. Petry continued to remain active in community issues, both from her commitment to activism and social change, and to glean material for her writing. In 1944, for example, she had established an after-school program for children in Harlem who were often left alone because their parents were working.

In 1948, after becoming an established writer, Petry and her husband moved back to Old Saybrook. Five years later, at age 45, her third novel, The Narrows, a story based on family narratives, was published. In 1955, Petry’s first children’s story, Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, was released. Her second children’s story arrived in 1964 when she published Tituba of Salem Village, a tale of a slave woman accused of witchcraft. In 1971, Petry published a series of short fiction pieces in a collection called Miss Muriel and Other Stories, which addressed her evolving sensibilities in terms of race relations.

Petry divided her time between writing, raising her daughter Elisabeth Ann, and involving herself in civic matters. As she grew older, she devoted considerable time to studying painting, piano, and acting, and appeared in the American Negro Theater production of Striver’s Row. Petry died in Old Saybrook on April 28, 1997.

Throughout her life, she consistently sought to broaden her experience and the scope of her writing. Petry taught a business letter- writing course at the NAACP in Harlem and took a one-year visiting professor’s position in English at the University in Hawaii in 1974, at age 66. She served as an officer in the Authors League and the Authors Guild, and received honorary doctoral degrees from numerous universities. In 2001, Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts inducted her into its Hall of Black Achievement. Petry’s novels and stories captivated both adults and young audiences by revealing the complexities of race relations and class.

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