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    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    Ann Petry Day: A day of Connecticut pride

    This year for the first time in its history, our state will celebrate a day that honors one of the most gifted residents ever to hail from southeastern Connecticut. This Friday, May 10 will mark the inaugural Ann Petry Day (1908-1997), paying tribute to Old Saybrook’s literary star, the first African-American female author to sell over one million copies of a book, “The Street.”

    For too long, Miss Petry’s name and international success have been kept a secret from local residents. To their credit, state legislators recognized the injustice and disservice. A state that has celebrated the likes of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe had essentially allowed Miss Petry’s name to begin to fade. Here was a literary treasure in our own backyard and even the town of Old Saybrook, where her family lived, barely acknowledged her prior to 2022. In 2022 the town did put up a plaque in front of what was once the James Pharmacy, which is where Ann Petry was born and raised. But the plaque is an ode to her aunt, Anna Luise James, which as it reads, was, “The first African-American pharmacist in Connecticut, proprietor of the James Pharmacy.” There is no mention of Ann Petry. It is also worth noting that the effort to put up that plaque came from someone who is not a full-time resident of Old Saybrook. In the fall of 2022, the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center held a public forum, “Miss James and Ann Petry in Old Saybrook and Beyond,” and in 2023, PARJE (Public Art for Racial Education) created a mural that featured Petry, among others.

    That same year, Waterford RISE (Residents for Inclusion and Social Equity), a grassroots group of which I am a proud member, went to work on spreading the word of Miss Petry. Upon hearing about some of my past, mostly ignored efforts, to celebrate Ann Petry, Waterford RISE hosted a panel, “Why We Should Know About Ann Petry,” at the Waterford Public Library that was attended by nearly 100 people and that helped introduce Miss Petry to new generations. Not long thereafter, the state leaders also took note.

    During that legislative session, May 10 became a designated day of celebration of Ann Petry in the state of Connecticut, as approved by the Connecticut Legislature Bill No. 6081, sponsored by Rep. Kathleen M. McCarty, R-38th District, and Rep. Devin R. Carney, R-23rd District, and co-sponsored by Rep. Anthony L. Nolan, D-39th District. The bill was signed into law by Governor Ned Lamont in 2023. Passage was a collaborative, nonpartisan effort.

    Although the annual commemorative day does not guarantee that Ann Petry’s name will immediately be a household one, it goes a long way to helping ensure that her name will stay in our collective psyche. Miss Petry had a prolific career and was one of the major authors of the 20th century. She published eight books, including the novels, “The Country Place” and “The Narrows,” as well as “Miss Muriel and Other Stories” and “Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad.” Her daughter, Liz Petry, who once worked as a journalist for the Hartford Courant, passed away last year, just months before Gov. Lamont signed the bill. It is sadly too late for her to celebrate Ann Petry Day, but it is not too late for us to continue one of her missions of keeping her mother’s memory alive.

    Imagine if all our local and state libraries and schools embraced the spirit of this day and developed programs that created not only knowledge of but pride in Miss Petry? Having been a product of Connecticut public schools and having discovered Miss Petry over 30 years ago in a classroom at Brown University, and having met too many students and residents who have never heard of her, I can’t help but get excited about the endless possibilities that Ann Petry Day offers. Let us remember her name. Let us all celebrate her excellence.

    Jose B. Gonzalez, a Waterford resident, is a professor of English at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and a graduate of New London High School.

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