Ann (Lane) Petry: from Old Saybrook to the Hall of Fame

Ann Lane, born October 12, 1908 above her father’s pharmacy in Old Saybrook, would for many reasons become renowned in both her native Connecticut and across the country. Her name would become Ann Petry, and she would be known for her tenacious writing, professorship and varied accomplishments.

Petry’s writing may be best associated and illustrated in the 1946 publication The Street, which depicted life in Harlem during the 1940s. The book was a result of outside encouragement to publish, after her first short story was published in The Crisis, a NAACP publication. The book rose to critical acclaim and sold over 1 million copies. She would later write other works, including novels The Narrows (1953) and Country Place (1947), and children’s books Harriet Tubman and The Drugstore Cat. When Petry was awarded an honorary degree from Suffolk University in 1983, her writing was described as such with “unswerving allegiance to the highest tradition of literary craftsmanship”.

Ann Petry, photograph reproduced by Robert J. Bitondi, Ms 84342. This manuscript collection features research on 81 Black women of Connecticut who made outstanding achievements in the state. The former CHS exhibition “Achievements against the Odds” was based from this research.

Ann Petry, photograph reproduced by Robert J. Bitondi, Ms 84342. This manuscript collection features research on 81 Black women of Connecticut who made outstanding achievements in the state. The former CHS exhibition “Achievements against the Odds” was based from this research.

Prior to the buzz of The Street, Petry worked as a journalist for Harlem newspapers The Amsterdam News and The People’s Voice, and was a graduate from the UConn School of Pharmacy. While she did practice as a licensed pharmacist in her native Old Saybrook, she ultimately returned to writing. Petry and the publishing house Houghton Mifflin would cross paths more than once during her life; in 1945 she received a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, and in 1992 the company would republish The Street.

Sampler, 1839 by Miranda Robinson, 1990.142.0.

Sampler, 1839 by Miranda Robinson, 1990.142.0.

Ann Petry’s strong ties to Old Saybrook are evident in both her personal life (she came home in 1948 and stayed until her death in 1997) and her keen affinity for collecting. An 1839 embroidered sampler made by 8 year old Miranda Robinson was previously owned by Ann Petry, and is now in the Connecticut Historical Society collection. The sampler is one of the few known decorative needle works by an African American, and includes the Biblical saying “The path of duty is the path of safety”. It ‘s been suggested that the saying illustrated Miranda’s experiences as a free black girl living in Old Saybrook, some of which she may have shared with Ann Petry, despite the difference in their ages. A record for the Miranda Robinson sampler can be found online at eMuseum.

For her work as a writer, journalist, professor and more, Ann Petry was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. Select materials, including 2 copies of The Street, can be accessed in the Waterman Research Center.

Sierra Dixon is a Research & Collections Associate at the Connecticut Historical Society

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