6 Interesting Facts About Ann Petry, Author of The Street

Ann Petry

Ann Petry (1908 – 1997) is best known for being the first African-American woman to produce a book whose sales would top a million copies. The Street ultimately sold a million and a half copies. A gritty story of a single mother raising a son in Harlem, it brought its author much praise and a little notoriety.

Her writing career began in earnest in 1938 when she moved from her native Connecticut to Harlem. There she worked as a journalist, columnist, and editor as well as participating in Harlem’s American Negro Theatre. She had three novels and several children’s books published. Here are 6 interesting facts about Ann Petry, a classic American author who deserves to be more widely read.

She had a sheltered upbringing in a New England town

Before she was Ann Petry she was Ann Lane, and was raised in Old Saybrook, a middle class town in Connecticut. Her parents tried to shelter Ann and her sister from the systemic racism of black life in America. They largely succeeded, with the exception of a few unfortunate and indelible incidences.

Her father was a pharmacist who owned his own drugstore; her mother was a chiropodist and businesswoman. Ann’s mother and aunts were strong role models. Ann said of her mother and aunts that “it never occurred to them that there were things they couldn’t do because they were women.”

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The idea to write was planted by a high school teacher

In a high school English class, her teacher read an essay Ann had written aloud to the class and commented: “I honestly believe that you could be a writer if you wanted to.” But her parents, practical and prudent, wanted her to study to be a pharmacist and follow in a well-established family path.

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She studied pharmacy and worked in the family business

There were several generations of pharmacists in the educated and well-traveled extended family, so it seemed natural for Ann to go into the family profession. She graduated from the Connecticut College of Pharmacy in the early 1930s, and worked in her father’s pharmacy for some years.

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Ann Petry photo by Carl Van Vechten

Learn more about Ann Petry

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Urban life opened her eyes

Ann didn’t experience urban life until she got married in 1938 at age 30. She and her husband George Petry moved to Harlem in New York City. She plunged into writing —reporting for newspapers, short stories for journals. For the first time she observed the poverty, hardship, and segregation in Black communities.

Over the next few years, she conducted sociological studies, volunteered with the NAACP, and worked with low-income schoolchildren in after-school programs.

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The Street by Ann Petry

The Street by Ann Petry

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She broke barriers with The Street

Ann’s experiences as a resident of New York City inspired her to write The Street (1946). Her first novel remained her best known. As de from being a good story, it’s also a social commentary on black urban life in that era.

As mentioned earlier, Petry became the first Black woman writer whose work sold more than a million copies (The Street ultimately sold 1.5 million). The book brought her much critical praise and national attention, and won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship.

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She also wrote children’s books

In 1947, Ann returned to the quieter life in Old Saybrook. In addition to producing two more novels (Country Place and The Narrows) she wrote children’s book: The Drugstore Cat (1949), Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955) and Tituba of Salem Village (1963). Her last book, a collection of her short stories, Miss Muriel & Other Stories, was published in 1971. 

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The Narrows by Ann Petry

Ann Petry page on Amazon

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