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Louise Meriwether

(b. 1923)


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(b. 1923), short fiction writer, essayist, novelist, writer of children's literature, and black activist.

Louise Meriwether holds an established place among literati whose writings reassess African Americans' past. Her fiction treats bygone times to revise American history and to record African Americans' tremendous achievements despite overwhelming odds.

Born in Haverstraw, New York, to Marion Lloyd Jenkins (a bricklayer) and Julia Jenkins (a housewife), Meriwether grew up in Harlem during the depression. The only daughter of five children, she remembers her mother applying for welfare because her unemployed father could not sustain the family as a numbers runner. Despite her humble beginnings, she received her BA in English from New York University and her MA in journalism from the University of Los Angeles in 1965. She has worked as a freelance reporter (1961–1964) for the Los Angeles Sentinel, a black story analyst (1965–1967) for Universal Studios, and a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York (1979–1988), and the University of Houston (1985–1988).

In the early 1960s, Meriwether published biosketches of important African American figures: Grace Bumbry, singer; Audrey Boswell, attorney; Vaino Spenser, Los Angeles judge; and Mathew Henson, explorer. Her short stories appeared later that same decade: “Daddy Was a Number Runner” (Antioch Review, 1967), “A Happening in Barbadoes” (Antioch Review, 1968), and “The Thick End Is for Whipping” (Negro Digest, 1969). Three juvenile readers on historical black figures were published in the 1970s: The Freedom Ship of Robert Smalls (1971), The Heart Man: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1972), and Don't Take the Bus on Monday: The Rosa Parks Story (1973). Whether for adult or juvenile reading, each work includes some aspect of African American life not usually found in American history texts.

Meriwether's first novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner (1970), returns to the depression and captures the disintegration of a struggling African American family during difficult economic times. The novel is not autobiographical in the strictest sense, but parallels do exist between the author's family and that of Francie Coffin, the twelve-year-old protagonist. The depression took a toll on the physical, mental, and social health of both families; the first-person point of view makes plausible the Coffins' demise.

Fragments of the Ark (1994), Meriwether's second novel, recounts the daring escape of Peter Mango, a Charleston slave, to the Union army to achieve his freedom. Based on the real-life adventure of Robert Smalls, the novel changes the name of the historic figure to consider interpersonal relationships. This novel joins other historical fiction, such as Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) and Alex Haley's Roots (1976), to retell the story of slavery from an African American perspective.

Between the publication of Fragments of the Ark and Daddy Was a Number Runner, twenty-four years passed. Often Meriwether delayed her writings to engage in political activity. In 1965, Meriwether worked with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and with the Deacons, a black coalition that armed itself to protect the community from Ku Klux Klan raids. Two years later, she and Vantile Whitfield, founder of the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles, formed the Black Anti-Defamation Association to prevent Twentieth Century Fox's producer David L. Wolper from making a film of William Styron's controversial book The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). Styron's book denigrated the Virginia insurrectionist and misinterpreted African American history. The outcome of Meriwether and Whitfield's efforts was that the film was not made.

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Subjects: Literature — United States History.


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