The late Ann Petry holds the distinction of being the first Black woman writer to sell over 1 million copies of a book. Her 1946 bestseller, The Street, focused on a single mother living on 116th Street in Harlem and was inspired by her time living in the famed New York borough.
Petry was born Anna Lane on October 12, 1908 in the town of Old Saybrook in Connecticut. Her father worked as a pharmacist, and her mother worked in several fields, including hairdressing and owning a store. Peter and Bertha Lane sheltered their children from discrimination as much as they could. While they experienced less hardships than most, they were still the Black minority in their middle-class neighborhood.
Petry’s family businesses didn’t find success until she was an adult. By that time, she earned her Graduate in Pharmacy degree from the Connecticut College of Pharmacy, now known as the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy. From 1931 to 1938, she worked as a pharmacist, yet the pull of creative writing would prove to be strongest after she left medical field.
Petry married George Petry in 1938, relocating to Harlem, New York. Petry always harbored dreams of becoming a writer, and the move was a huge step in nurturing her desire. Early on, she penned pieces for The Amsterdam News and The People’s Voice, while also contributing to the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine. Petry also wrote short stories, writing under the pen name Arnold Petri.
It wasn’t until her move to Harlem, that Petry witnessed Black people living in abject poverty. It was also a revelation that many Harlem residents lacked the means to dig out of their unfortunate situations. The Street focused on single mother Lutie Johnson and her harsh attempts at survival while living on 116th Street.
The book was a success, making Petry the first Black woman to have a best-selling novel. Petry ultimately returned to her hometown and wrote other books, including works for children and a collection of short stories. None of her work surpassed the success of The Street, but she continued to write until the early ’70’s.
Petry worked as a visiting lecturer at several schools, and was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts creative writing grant in 1978.
She died in Old Saybrook on April 30, 1997.