The famed novelist Ann Petry gained her knowledge of Harlem during her days as a reporter for the Amsterdam News in the late 1930s. She accumulated more insight on the historic community and its residents working for the People’s Voice, a weekly newspaper founded by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Always a keen observer of social and economic affairs with an abundance of political savvy, Petry (nee Lane, she married George Petry in 1938) later wove her coverage and impressions into her novel “The Street,” which centered on Lutie Johnson, a working-class woman with a son, Bub, and with dreams and aspirations to soar beyond the lethal limits of her environment.
Find out more: Anthologies are always a good place to seek information on writers, and few are better than the Oxford Companion to African American Literature, where there is lengthy profile and assessment of Petry’s work.
Discussion: Harlem then and now is a subject that can be pursued given Petry’s book and the present conditions in the community, specifically on 116th Street and the arrival of merchants from Africa..
Place in context: When Petry roamed the streets of Harlem, it was in the late 1930s, and it’s easy to see how the community and its residents were unavoidable in her fiction.
If Petry were alive today, she would be astonished by the changes that have occurred on 116th Street, which is the street she selects for her protagonist and her friends. While there has been no dramatic change in the exterior of these timeless tenement buildings, they are just as festooned with dirt and grime as when she walked here; it’s the occupants that would stun her—for the street now belongs, for the most part, to African merchants, not the gangs and hustlers who once commanded the block between Seventh and Eighth avenues.
When the novel first appeared in 1946, it received a relative amount of fanfare and, even more astounding, sales for a Black woman author, selling in excess of a million copies. Some critics viewed her as the female counterpart to the phenomenally gifted Richard Wright, particularly in their focus on the struggle Black Americans faced coming of age in urban jungles.
“Lutie braced her body against the wind’s attack determined to finish thinking about the apartment before she went in to look at it,” Petry wrote in “The Street.” “Reasonable—now that could mean almost anything. On Eighth Avenue it meant tenements—ghastly places not fit for humans. On St. Nicholas, it meant high rents for small apartments; and on Seventh Avenue, it meant great big apartments where you had to take in roomers in order to pay the rent. On this street [116th], it could mean almost anything.”
Harlem was a far cry from Petry’s hometown of Old Saybrook, Conn., where she was born in 1908. She had a solidly middle-class background, and, like her parents, she pursued a profession in pharmacy, earning a degree in the field in 1931 from the University of Connecticut. For seven years, she worked in the family’s drugstore before relocating to Harlem with her husband in 1938 to try her hand at writing.
The Amsterdam News was her first stop, and after a three-year stint that included a column called “The Lighter Side,” devoted to the community’s elite, she moved on to Powell’s newsweekly for three years. In 1944, she enrolled at Columbia University with a concentration in creative writing. She was two years into her course work when she began taking notes for her novel that would evolve into a series of articles, one of which was published in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine and caught the eye of an enthusiastic editor who signed her for a more extensive study of children left alone by working women. A fellowship from her publisher paid the rent while she completed the novel that would bring her instant celebrity. The spotlight didn’t linger too long on her, however, and unlike the novels of Wright and Ellison, hers was soon out of print and, within a few years, virtually forgotten.
Even so, Petry was not dismayed, and in 1947, she produced her second novel, “Country Place,” and in a radical departure from the urban turmoil of her first book, here she deals with class and gender conflict among a small circle of whites in a New England community. Six years later she finished “The Narrows,” and here she probes a psychological theme. Neither of these books acquired the reviews or acclaim of “The Street,” but with women and their problems deeply imprinted in her books, she anticipated the burgeoning feminist movement that gradually emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
This Week in Black History
April 14, 1775: Quakers in Philadelphia form the first abolitionist society in the nation.
April 15, 1894: Blues diva Bessie Smith was born on this day in Chattanooga, Tenn.
April 16, 1962: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes his famous letter from a Birmingham jail.
Between novels, Petry wrote poetry and countless short stories, a few of which were collected in “Miss Muriel and Other Stories” (1971). There was also time to give attention to her young readers, and her books “Harriet Tubman: Conductor of the Underground Railroad” (1955) and “Tituba of Salem Village” (1964) more than filled the bill.
It took a while before her works were included in a wave of anthologies about Black writers that began appearing in the 1960s, and she was “rediscovered” in the 1980s when “The Street” was reprinted by one publisher and reissued by the original publisher Houghton Mifflin in 1992.
As a teacher, she began in the early 1940s in Harlem at elementary schools and later lectured at the University of Ohio and was a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii.
Eventually, she returned to Old Saybrook, occasionally venturing out to receive awards, tributes and honorary degrees, including one from her alma mater the University of Connecticut in 1988.
In 1994, Petry was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. She died three years later in her beloved home in Old Saybrook.