Ann Petry: The story of America’s first Black woman to sell more than one million copies as an author

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 13, 2024 6:36 AM EDT
Ann Petry is the first African American woman to sell over one million book copies.

Literature serves as a reflection of humanity and a means by which people understand each other. This is why the scarcity of Black women writers before 20th-century American literary archives is a troublesome reminder of the arduous times in which they dwelled. One woman who went against the tide was Ann Petry. Pivoting from a career as a pharmacist, Petry became an author, narrating the intricacies of Black life during the mid-20th century. Her first novel, The Street, was the first book by an African-American woman to sell over one million copies.

Petry was born in 1908 and raised in Old Saybrook, a middle-class town in Connecticut. Her family was one of the few Black residents in the town but naturally harbored ambitions to elevate in life. This was only a mere fifty or so years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and although Connecticut was one of America’s more Black-friendly states, Petry and her family were not spared the indignities of Black American humanity at the time.

Petry’s father was a pharmacist who owned a drugstore and her mother was a chiropodist and businesswoman. The women in her family were strong role models who showed Petry that success was possible. “It never occurred to them that there were things they couldn’t do because they were women,” Petry would later say of her mother and aunts.

Although her parents tried to shelter her from society’s worst, Petry experienced a few unfortunate and memorable incidences. She had to deal with racist teachers and neighbors although the state didn’t institute the stringent Jim Crow segregation measures. Her father had to write a letter to a local newspaper complaining about a teacher who refused to teach his daughters and his niece. These personal experiences would later feature prominently in Petry’s stories and novels.

But it was the power of praise that propelled Petry to become a writer. Her high school English teacher had Petry read an essay Petry had written aloud to the class, after which the teacher commented: “I honestly believe that you could be a writer if you wanted to.”

She didn’t immediately follow the writing path as her parents wanted her to tread the well-established family path and become a pharmacist. Petry earned her degree from Connecticut College of Pharmacy in 1930. For several years, she worked as a pharmacist in her father’s drugstore – never forgetting her ambition to become a writer.

Following her marriage, Petry moved to Harlem in New York City. She worked as a journalist, columnist, editor and even participated in Harlem’s American Negro Theatre. It was her first time experiencing urban life and the poverty, hardship, and segregation in Black communities. She got to understand the struggles that the majority of Black people across the country went through daily. Her early years in New York- seeing neglected children up close and living among the poor- left an indelible mark on her and led her to put her experiences to paper.

Petry’s short stories attracted the attention of the publisher Houghton Mifflin and in 1945 received a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship to complete her first novel. A year later, she finished The Street, a novel about a single Black mother in Harlem during World War II. The book is a social commentary on black urban life at the time, navigating complex themes such as racism, sexual harassment, violence, and class divisions. Although it is not autobiographical, Petry’s experiences as a resident of New York City inspired the story.

The novel earned Petry critical appraisal and brought her national attention. She achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the first Black woman writer whose work sold more than a million copies. Ultimately, The Street sold over 1.5 million copies and remains her most popular. Petry later wrote two other novels for adults and several fiction and nonfiction books for young people.

Disliking the sudden fame and attention from her literary success, she moved back to Old Saybrook in 1947. She lived in the town until her death on April 28, 1997, at age 88. A trailblazer, Petry left an indelible mark in both the literary and African-American communities. But perhaps most importantly, she exemplified the importance of telling our stories.