Ann Petry

Ann Petry
"The women work because the white folks give them jobs—washing dishes and clothes and floors and windows. The women work because for years now the white folks haven't liked to give black men jobs that paid enough for them to support their families. And finally it gets to be too late for some of them. Even wars don't change it. The men get out of the habit of working and the houses are old and gloomy and the walls press in. And the men go off, move on, slip away, find new women. Find younger women."
- Ann Petry, The Street

Induction Category:
Writers & Journalists

Born: 1908

Died: 1997

Inducted: 1994

Town: Old Saybrook

Ann Lane Petry was a Connecticut writer whose novel The Street was one of the first to address the experiences of black women in terms of race, class and gender. Her ground-breaking novel, published in 1946, was also the first book by an African-American woman to sell over 1 million copies. In its vivid descriptions of street culture and the hard life endured by the main characters, The Street portrayed the day-to-day existence of the residents of Harlem.

Ann Lane was born and raised in Old Saybrook, Conn., where she lived most of her life. Her father, Peter Clark Lane, was a pharmacist and her mother, Bertha James Lane, ran a business called Beautiful Linens for Beautiful Homes. After Ann graduated from the Connecticut College of Pharmacy, she worked in the family's two drugstores.

Ann Lane’s life was altered dramatically when, in 1938, she married George Petry, a Louisiana-born resident of Harlem. They moved to New York City, where she worked in an after-school program on 116th Street. She then began writing short stories and worked for the Harlem Amsterdam News. By 1941, she was covering general news stories and editing the women's pages of the People's Voice in Harlem. Her first published story appeared in 1943 in the Crisis, a magazine published monthly by the NAACP. While her husband was in the service during World War II, she began work on her first novel, The Street, which was published in 1946 and for which she received the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship. The book’s empathetic depictions of broken lives on a single stretch of a Harlem street were both a critical and commercial success. Critics hailed the novel as skillfully written and powerful, while the public made it a bestseller.

Petry went on to publish seven more books, including two additional novels, The Country Place (1947) and The Narrows (1953). Her works also included Miss Muriel and Other Stories and a children's biography of Harriet Tubman.

Petry was appointed visiting professor of English at the University of Hawaii (1944-1945) and lectured widely throughout the United States. In 1947 she and her husband returned to Old Saybrook, where they raised their one daughter. She died in Old Saybrook in April 1997.

During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times