Louise Meriwether Dies at 100; in 1970, a New, Black Literary Voice

Louise Meriwether, whose acclaimed 1970 novel, “Daddy Was a Number Runner,” about a struggling family in Depression-era Harlem, introduced a new Black female voice at the same time that Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou were emerging as literary forces, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 100.

Her death, in a nursing home, was confirmed by Cheryl Hill, who is part of Ms. Meriwether’s extended family.

Ms. Meriwether was a journalist and literary critic when she started to write “Daddy” at the Watts Writers Workshop in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. Drawing on her impoverished childhood in Harlem, she created the Coffin family — 12-year-old Francie, her two older brothers and their parents — who in 1934 are trying, with diminishing success, to prevent economic insecurity, racial prejudice and crime from crushing them.

“Daddy” chronicles a year in Francie’s life and is told in her voice. It opens with her picking up betting slips and cash for her father — a number runner who collects bets and later pays off the winners in a local, illegal gambling racket. She races home to her family’s tenement apartment and describes the scene before her.

“Knots of men, doping out their numbers, sat on the stoops or stood wide-legged in front of the storefronts, their black ribs shining through shirts limp with sweat,” Ms. Meriwether wrote. “They spent most of their time playing the single action — betting on each number as it came out — and they stayed in the street all day long until the last figure was out. I was glad Daddy was a number runner and not just hanging around the corners like these men.”

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, the novelist Paule Marshall wrote that Francie “is a remarkable heroine,” a vulnerable, innocent dreamer trying desperately to survive.

“There, on those mean streets,” Ms. Marshall wrote, “all her bright promise is slowly eclipsed by the realities of ghetto life, by the evils she encounters — an evil personified by child molesters who infest the roofs, movies and parks of her world and the white shopkeepers who prey on her poverty.”

The critic Lovia Gyarkye wrote in The Times in 2021 that “Daddy,” Ms. Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye” (1970) and Ms. Angelou’s first memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969), were among a handful of books of that era that “took the perspective of Black girls seriously, attending to their simultaneously brutal and tender realities.”

Ms. Meriwether did not achieve fame like Ms. Morrison and Ms. Angelou. But she won the admiration of James Baldwin, who wrote in the foreword to “Daddy” that she “has told everyone who can read what it means to be a Black man or woman in this country.”

“She has achieved,” he added, “an assessment, in a deliberately minor key, of a major tragedy.”

Ms. Meriwether’s 1970 novel “has told everyone who can read what it means to be a Black man or woman in this country,” James Baldwin wrote. Credit…Feminist Press

Louise Marion Jenkins was born on May 8, 1923, in the Hudson River town of Haverstraw, N.Y. Her father, Marion Jenkins, was a janitor, number runner and pianist who played at house parties. Her mother, Julia (Golphin) Jenkins, was a domestic worker. Her parents had moved from South Carolina during the Great Migration to Haverstraw and then to Brooklyn and Harlem.

Louise read widely, including the romances published in Love Story Magazine and Hardy Boys books. After graduating from high school in Manhattan, she moved to Washington to work as a clerk-typist for the Navy. Returning to Manhattan, she enrolled at New York University and received her bachelor’s degree in English there in 1949.

A year later, she married Angelo Meriwether, a teacher, and moved to St. Paul, Minn., before relocating to Los Angeles. After they divorced, she married Earl Howe in 1957; they also divorced.

In the early 1960s, Ms. Meriwether was a reporter for The Los Angeles Sentinel, a Black newspaper, for which she interviewed Baldwin, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. She earned her master’s in journalism in 1965 from the University of California, Los Angeles.

She taught briefly at a Freedom School in Louisiana — one of many such alternative schools for Black students set up mostly in the South during the civil rights era — and returned to Los Angeles in August 1965 just before the Watts riots erupted there. She joined the Watts Writers Workshop, a collective started by the screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was looking to nurture Black literary talent.

The poet Quincy Troupe, who was a member of the collective, told The Times in 2021, “I remember asking myself: This woman is a great writer. What is she doing in a workshop?”

“Daddy” and “Lillie of Watts,” by Mildred Pitts Walter, were among the first published books to come out of the workshop.

In 1966, Ms. Meriwether was hired by Universal Studios as its first Black story analyst, a job entailing reading scripts and offering feedback.

Then, in 1968, she helped lead a protest that forced changes in a planned film adaptation of William Styron’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” about the leader of a bloody slave rebellion in 1831.

To press the case, she helped start the Black Anti-Defamation Association — with the actor Ossie Davis as its national spokesman and sponsors like the civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael and the comedian Godfrey Cambridge — which sought to compel the film’s producer, David Wolper, and its would-be director, Norman Jewison, to use factual source materials to supplement Mr. Styron’s novel.

Ms. Meriwether in 2013. Her literary work included children’s books about Black historical figures, one of which she adapted into a young adult novel.Credit…Fern Logan

After an agreement was announced in early 1969, Ms. Meriwether told The Pittsburgh Courier that the film would “project a positive image of Nat Turner as a Black revolutionary.” She told The Times, “We feel that Styron emasculated Nat Turner and defamed all Black people in his book.”

The film, which was to star James Earl Jones as Mr. Turner, was never made.

After the publication of “Daddy,” Ms. Meriwether wrote children’s books about Black historical figures: Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate vessel with fellow slaves and sailed it into Union-controlled waters in 1862; the pioneering heart surgeon Daniel Hale Williams; and the civil rights trailblazer Rosa Parks.

In 1994, she adapted the Smalls story into a young adult novel, “Fragments of the Ark,” which she read to schoolchildren, as she did her other books.

“I think it’s important to let them know of the contributions made by other Black Americans,” she told South Carolina newspaper The Beaufort Gazette in 1994. “If you think you’ve never done anything of value, you can easily believe that you’re inferior.”

In 2000, Ms. Meriwether published another adult novel, “Shadow Dancing,” a love story about a journalist and a writer-director who runs a theater in Harlem. She also taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Houston.

She left no immediate survivors.

In Francie, of “Daddy Was a Number Runner,” Ms. Meriwether created a character who, as she edged toward womanhood was trying to maintain her integrity while understanding how difficult it would be to change the trajectory of her life.

“Either you was a whore like China Doll,” she had Francie thinking to herself as she sat on a stoop next to a friend, “or you worked in a laundry or did a day’s work or ran poker games or had a baby every year. We sat there, Sukie rubbing her nose with the back of her hand and sniffling and me getting ready to join her any minute.”

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