Ann Petry (1908–1997), journalist, novelist, children’s writer, and biographer whose best-selling novel, The Street, was the first book by an African American women to sell more than 1 million copies.
Ann Petry was born Ann Lane in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, in 1908. She was one of fifteen African Americans in a town of 1,500. Her family owned a pair of drugstores, and she trained to be pharmacist in the family tradition. Her real ambition, though, was to become a writer.
In 1938 she married George Petry, a Harlem resident, and the couple moved to New York City. Ann Petry’s ambition thrived in the artistic, intellectual, and cultural milieu of Harlem. She began writing general news stories for the Amsterdam News (1938–1941) and edited the women’s pages of the Peoples’ Voice (1941–1944). During that time she studied creative writing at Columbia University and began writing short fiction. Her first published story appeared in the Crisis in 1943.
She completed her first novel, The Street, in 1946 under a novel-writing fellowship from Houghton Mifflin. In gritty detail, The Street chronicles the life of an African American woman and single mother who struggles at the intersection of race, class, and gender in a Harlem neighborhood. A bestseller, The Street sold over a million copies and was—an remains—critically acclaimed. Many scholars, however, consider her third novel, the lesser-known work The Narrows, to be her masterpiece. The Narrows tells the tale of a interracial affair destined for tragedy as the characters eventually conform to the stereotypes to which their community has assigned them.
Petry also wrote biographical works for a younger audience, including Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad, Tituba of Salem Village, and Legends of the Saints.