At the heart of Louise Meriwether’s book “Daddy Was a Number Runner,” “which gives it force,” wrote James Baldwin in the foreword, “is a child’s growing sense of being one of the victims of a collective rape—for history, and especially and emphatically in the Black-white arena, is not the past, it is the present. The great, vast, public, historical violation is also the present, private, unendurable insult, and the mighty force of these unnoticed violations spells doom for any civilization [that] pretends that the violations are not occurring or that they do not matter or that tomorrow is a lovely day. People cannot be, and, finally, will not be treated in this way. This book should be sent to the White House, and to our earnest Attorney General, and to everyone in this country able to read—which, may however, alas, be a most despairing statement.”
Baldwin has lengthy praise for his Harlem kinswoman, and the eloquence he extends here aligns perfectly with Meriwether’s. Not only does she write with poetic bravura, but she is unsparingly honest in her depiction of her beloved community’s detritus and its denizens.
Rather than compiling a portrait of her and her work through a vast number of biographies, we have chosen this entry from no less an authority than the “Oxford Companion to African American Literature,” compiled by Rita B. Dandridge. We should also note that Meriwether is by no means as obscure as many of those discussed in this column but her recent death on Oct. 10 at 100 years old, prompts this response and hopefully serves as the paper’s obituary to this distinguished woman of letters.
Born in Haverstraw, New York on May 8, 1923, to Marion Lloyd Jenkins (a bricklayer) and Julie Jenkins (a housewife), “Meriwether grew up in Harlem during the depression,” Dandridge begins. “The only daughter of five children, she remembers her mother applying for welfare because her unemployed father could not sustain the family as a numbers runner.”
Meriwether’s educational background included a B.A. degree in English from New York University and an M.A. in journalism from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1965. She worked as a freelance reporter from 1961 to 1964 for the Los Angeles Sentinel, Dandridge continued, and “as a Black story analyst for Universal Studios.” She was on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York and at the University of Houston.
While living in Los Angeles, she married Angelo Meriwether, and retained the name even after marrying the second time. “In the early 1960s,” Dandridge writes, “Meriwether published bio sketches of important African American figures: Grace Bumbry, singer; Audrey Boswell, attorney; Vaino Spencer, the first Black woman who secured a judgeship in California; and Matthew Henson, explorer. Her short stories appeared later that same decade.” Then came a succession of young adult books on African American notables, including the Civil War hero Robert Smalls, the surgeon Daniel Hale Williams, and Rosa Parks.
Her first novel, “Daddy Was a Number Runner,” released in 1970, was not autobiographical but certainly dramatically captured her personal experiences during the decade that found her and her family struggling to survive amid economic despair. Here is an excerpt from the novel, from the perspective of main character Francine:. “[It] seemed like Harlem was nothing but one big garbage heap. And how crowded the streets were, people practically falling off the sidewalks, kids scrambling between your legs almost knocking you down. There was something black and evil in these streets and that something was in me, too.”
Mary Helen Washington in her collection “Black-eyed Susans: Classic Stories by and about Black Women,” situates Meriwether’s “Daddy Was a Number Runner” in the context of a “Black girl’s growing up period as essentially unprotected. Meriwether and other writers, Washington posits, “show the Black girl developing reliance and resilience in order to deal with the hostile forces around her, quite often assuming adulthood earlier than she should have to because of the external pressures around her.”
Another Meriwether novel, “Fragments of the Ark,” departs in time and circumstance as it follows the trials and tribulations of a young man’s escape from slavery, tracking closely to the actual adventures of Robert Smalls. Moreover, it was written in 1994, some years after her activist days in the Civil Rights Movement, and part of a contingent of artists challenging William Styron’s distortion of the life of Nat Turner.
“Whether in her writings or her militant tactics, Meriwether insists on revising American history to give African Americans a deserving respectable place in it,” Dandridge concludes.