In honor of Black History month I am featuring African American authors who made history by accomplishing extraordinary feats at a time when the odds were so heavily stacked against them.  This week the spotlight rests on Ann Petry, the first African American female author to sell over one million copies of her book.

Petry was born in 1911 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where her father and grandfather ran a drugstore. Petry loved to read and from the age of fourteen she knew she wanted to be a writer. She  wrote poetry and short plays in high school, but after graduation she chose the safe route and enrolled in the pharmacy program at the University of Connecticut where she earned her PhG degree. Ann worked in the family business until she married in 1938 and moved to New York.

The direction of Ann’s life changed when she took her first job in the advertising department of an African American newspaper, The Amsterdam News. She later became a reporter and editor for the People’s Voice, a weekly newspaper, writing about Harlem’s upper class. During that time, Ann took writing classes at Columbia university and wrote short stories which she published in the NAACP magazine The Crisis. One story, “On Saturday, the Siren Sounds at Noon” so intrigued an editor at Houghton Miffin, that he encouraged Petry to apply for Houghton’s fiction fellowship. Petry won the fellowship in 1945 and in 1946 Houghton Miffin published her novel The Street, which tells of a woman struggling to raise her son in an urban environment in New York City.

This novel  became a bestseller and was reprinted in 1985 as part of the Black Women Writers series at Beacon Press and reissued in 1992 by Houghton Mifflin when Petry was eighty-five years old.  It is hailed as a “masterpiece” and a “classic” of African American fiction.  After the unprecedented success of  The Street which sold 1.5 million copies, Petry went on to publish short stories, children’s books and novels which continue to be reissued. The Narrows (1953) examines the lives of African Americans in a New England town;  The Drugstore Cat (1949), a children’s book, and  Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955) are among her most notable accomplishments.

In her writings Ann Petry was said to be versatile, drawing  from her experiences in Harlem and Connecticut as the basis for her novels and short stories, using history as the backdrop for her adolescent books and descriptions so vivid, readers can almost see and feel the characters and their settings. She was also called a visionary and a humanist, writing about interracial relationships and feminism long before they became realities in America.  Ms. Petry died at the age of ninety in a convalescent home in Old Saybrook, five years after The Street was reissued.  As writers we can learn a lot from the works of this trailblazer.

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