Tarry, Ellen (1906—)

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Tarry, Ellen (1906—)

African-American writer. Born in 1906 in Birmingham, Alabama; attended Alabama State College for Negroes and Bank Street College Writers' Laboratory; children: Elizabeth.

Worked as a journalist, teacher, social worker, and writer; served as deputy assistant to the Regional Administrator for Equal Opportunity, Department of Housing and Urban Development; co-founded Friendship House (Chicago); worked for Archdiocese of New York.

Selected works:

(illustrated by Myrtle Sheldon) Janie Belle (Garden City Publishing, 1940); (illustrated by Oliver Harrington) Hezekiah Horton (Viking, 1942); (with Marie Hall Ets, illustrated by Alexander and Alexandra Alland) My Dog Rinty (Viking, 1946); (illustrated by Harrington) The Runaway Elephant (Viking, 1950); The Third Door: The Autobiography of an American Negro Woman (McKay, 1955, new edition with introduction by Nellie Y. McKay, University of Alabama Press, 1992); (illustrated by Donald Bolognese)Katharine Drexel : Friend of the Neglected (Farrar, Straus, 1958); (illustrated by James Fox) Martin de Porres: Saint of the New World (Vision, 1963); Young Jim: The Early Years of James Weldon Johnson (Dodd, 1967); The Other Toussaint: A Modern Biography of Pierre Toussaint, a Post-Revolutionary Black (St. Paul Editions, 1981); Pierre Toussaint: Apostle of Old New York (Pauline Books, 1998). Author of weekly column, "Negroes of Note," in the Birmingham Truth; contributor to many Catholic periodicals.

Ellen Tarry's writings have been heavily influenced by her involvement in the civil-rights movement. As a result, she became one of the first authors to use African-Americans as main characters in books for children. She began her writing career at the Birmingham Truth newspaper, for which she eventually became a reporter, columnist, and editorialist. After some years at the paper, she left the South for New York City. There she became part of a group of journalists and creative writers that included Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. She also co-founded and worked at Friendship House, an interracial justice center in Harlem. It was there that she began a story hour for children in the neighborhood, using her young audiences to test out the stories she was writing. Her first published book, Janie Belle (1940), was soon followed by Hezekiah Horton (1942)—both notable for having African-American children as the main characters. The character of Hezekiah Horton was also featured in 1950's The Runaway Elephant.

My Dog Rinty, published in 1946, told in words and photos the story of a little boy whose troublesome dog becomes a valuable rat-hunter. Contemporary reviewers praised it first as a story of a boy and his dog, but many also noted with approval the way in which the author presented life in Harlem in a realistic, matter-of-fact style. "Showing the social range in a community, any community, from hardship to decency to comfort to luxury … indicating that the poor in old buildings live poorly; suggesting a concrete solution, that the buildings be replaced: all this was novel in a picturebook in 1946," notes Barbara Bader.

Perhaps Tarry's most significant book is her autobiography, The Third Door: The Autobiography of an American Negro Woman. The book, written in 1955, struck a determined and hopeful tone on the subject of civil rights. Reviewing a new edition of the book published in 1995, William L. Andrews noted, "Tarry is at pains to show what an African-American woman can do in alliance with fair-minded whites to bring about racial harmony and justice. For every recollection of discrimination and humiliation she suffered at the hands of bigots south and north, she gives her reader instances of successful interracial cooperation."

Tarry, who converted to Roman Catholicism as a young woman, also wrote biographies of two notable black Catholics: St. Martin de Porres, who lived in South America in the 17th century, and Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave who was brought to New York City by his owner around 1787. Toussaint eventually won his freedom, became wealthy, and bought the freedom of many other slaves. Known for his good works and piety, he became a leading citizen of Old New York. Tarry's research and writing on Toussaint were encouraged by a letter of Pontifical Blessing from Pope Paul VI. "Students and scholars from all over the United States have expressed interest in the life of this Haitian slave who became a respected citizen," wrote Tarry. "This book transformed me from being a writer to that of a resource person on the life and times of this man."

sources and suggested reading:

Bader, Barbara. American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within. NY: Macmillan, 1976.

Children's Literature Review. Vol. 26. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Tarry, Ellen. "Autobiography," in Something about the Author Autobiography Series. Vol. 16. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1993.

——. The Third Door: The Autobiography of an American Negro Woman. McKay, 1955.