Authors: Louise Meriwether

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Daddy Was a Number Runner, 1970

Fragments of the Ark, 1994

Shadow Dancing, 2000

Short Fiction:

“Daddy Was a Number Runner,” 1967

“A Happening in Barbados,” 1968

“The Thick End Is for Whipping,” 1968

“That Girl from Creektown,” 1972

“I Loves You Rain,” 1988

“Fragments of the Ark,” 1984

Nonfiction:

“James Baldwin: The Fiery Voice of the Negro Revolt,” 1963

“No Race Pride,” 1964

“The Negro: Half a Man in a White World,” 1965

“The New Face of Negro History,” 1965

“The Black Family in Crisis,” 1984

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Freedom Ship of Robert Smalls, 1971

The Heart Man: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, 1972

Don’t Ride the Bus on Monday: The Rosa Parks Story, 1973

Biography

Louise Jenkins Meriwether was the third of five children and the only daughter. Her parents, Marion Lloyd Jenkins and Julia Jenkins, had migrated from South Carolina to New York in search of work. Meriwether spent her youth in Harlem. She graduated from Central Commercial High School in Manhattan and received a B.A. in English from New York University. She received an M.A. in journalism from the University of California, Los Angeles, after moving there with her first husband, Angelo Meriwether. That marriage ended in divorce, as did her second marriage to Earl Howe.{$I[AN]9810001685}{$I[A]Meriwether, Louise}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Meriwether, Louise}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Meriwether, Louise}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Meriwether, Louise}{$I[tim]1923;Meriwether, Louise}

In California Meriwether worked as a legal secretary and real estate salesperson, wrote for both the Los Angeles Sentinel and The Los Angeles Times, and became the first African American story analyst for Universal Studios. She also became a staff member of the Watts Writers’ Workshop, and in 1967 she published her first short story, “Daddy Was a Number Runner,” in the Watts Writers’ Workshop issue of the Antioch Review. A second story, “A Happening in Barbados,” also appeared in the Antioch Review; here she probes the dynamics of interracial relationships between black men and white women, as well as the relationship between African American and white women. The story aroused the attention of a Prentice-Hall editor who asked to see chapters from Meriwether’s novel in progress, Daddy Was a Number Runner.

Meriwether’s first two novels are concerned with the fact that African Americans are missing from the pages of American history. Daddy Was a Number Runner chronicles one year in the life of a twelve-year-old girl in Depression-era Harlem. Although not strictly autobiographical, the novel shows a number of correlations between Meriwether’s life and that of the main character, Francie Coffin. Both spent their adolescence in Harlem, and both have mothers who are domestic workers and fathers who turn to running numbers–a type of illegal street lottery game–because they cannot find work and must support a family. The novel is an insider’s view of an economic racism that ends in the destruction of one family.

On her return to New York in 1970 Meriwether began to write biographies of African Americans for elementary school and juvenile readers in an attempt to counteract the absence of African American role models available to children. In 1971 she published The Freedom Ship of Robert Smalls, a biography of a man born a slave who won his freedom by commandeering a Confederate ship; he eventually returned to South Carolina, where he was elected to Congress for five terms. In The Heart Man: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams Meriwether traces the life, struggles, and eventual triumph of the first African American heart surgeon. Although he was the first doctor of any race to perform a successful heart operation, he was excluded from white professional societies. Nevertheless, he opened Provident Hospital in Chicago in 1891, the first hospital in the United States to admit both white and black patients. In Don’t Ride the Bus on Monday: The Rosa Parks Story Meriwether documents the story of the woman often called the Mother of the Civil Rights Struggle, a modest yet courageous African American woman who in refusing to give up her seat on a bus launched one of the most significant eras in American history.

Meriwether was always involved politically. Her work with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Bogalusa, Louisiana, led to her short story “That Girl from Creektown,” in which she explores racism and sexism. Along with John Henrik Clarke she wrote and distributed the pamphlet Black Americans Stay out of South Africa, which grew out of her activities in support of the Organization of African Unity and other groups that encouraged African American entertainers’ boycotting South Africa.

Meriwether taught fiction workshops in New York and writing courses at Sarah Lawrence College. She received a grant from the Mellon Foundation for research for her second novel, Fragments of the Ark, which incorporates the earlier story “I Loves You Rain.” The slave Peter Mango, the protagonist of the novel, resembles Robert Smalls (like Smalls, Mango hijacks a Confederate ship and turns it over to Union forces), and Meriwether intersperses other actual people and events in the book. As with other works, a narrative in the first person and the use of actuality and her own autobiography lend immediacy, a hallmark of Louise Meriwether’s writing. In Shadow Dancing, Meriwether returned to a contemporary setting, tracing the ups and downs of a marriage between two artistically driven African Americans, a writer and a theater director.

BibliographyBell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. This best, comprehensive study of the African American novel places Daddy Was a Number Runner in its context. This novel about growing up black in Harlem, Bell argues, is a Bildungsroman and an example of traditional realism.Dandridge, Rita B. “From Economic Insecurity to Disintegration: A Study of Character in Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner.” Negro American Literature Forum 9 (Fall, 1975): 82-85. Argues that “the three interacting factors in the novel–economic insecurity, loss of self-esteem, and self-debasement–all operate in the life of each of the Coffins and contribute to the disintegration of the family unit.”Duboin, Corinne. “Race, Gender, and Space: Louise Meriwether’s Harlem in Daddy Was a Number Runner.” CLA Journal 45, no. 1 (September, 2001): 26-40. Argues that Meriwether’s novel “has been somewhat neglected by literary critics.”Kaymer, David. Review of Fragments of the Ark, by Louise Meriwether. Library Journal 119, no. 1 (January, 1994). A positive review.McKay, Nellie. Afterword to Daddy Was a Number Runner, by Louise Meriwether. New York: Feminist Press, 1986. A detailed analysis of the historical context of the book, which McKay calls the “personal side of the story of living and growing up feeling entrapped by race and class in the black urban ghetto between the two great wars.”Wade-Gayles, Gloria Jean. No Crystal Stair: Visions of Race and Gender in Black Women’s Fiction. Rev. ed. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1997. Meriwether’s first novel is mentioned.Walker, Melissa. “Harbingers of Change: Harlem.” In Down from the Mountaintop: Black Women’s Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1989. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. This chapter contains an excellent analysis of Daddy Was a Number Runner that shows how “the protagonist’s determined effort to acquire historical sensibility” is at the center of the novel. Argues that Francie “matures as she learns to understand how the public arena informs private lives.”
Categories: Authors