NEW YORK (AP) — Louise Meriwether, the author and activist whose coming-of-age novel “Daddy Was a Number Runner” is widely regarded as a groundbreaking and vital portrait of race, gender and class, has died. She was 100.
Meriwether died Tuesday at the Amsterdam Nursing Home in Manhattan, according to Cheryl Hill, a filmmaker who said she is part of the author’s “extended family.” The cause was old age, Hill said.
“Daddy Was a Number Runner,” published in 1970, tells of a poor Black community in Harlem during the 1930s as seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Francie Coffin. The narrative is a grim panorama of gangs, gambling, confrontations with the police and endless worrying about money. But it is also a testament to the human spirit, whether Francie’s growing consciousness of her sexuality or the tenuous bond she feels as she looks out on the street life of Harlem.
“I wanted to hug them all,” Francie thinks to herself. “We belonged to each other somehow. I’m getting sick, I thought, as I shifted my elbows on the windowsill. I must have caught some rare disease. But that sweet feeling hung on and I loved all of Harlem gently and didn’t want to be Puerto Rican or anything else but my own rusty self.”
Meriwether’s debut novel sold hundreds of thousands of copies and, along with such contemporaneous works as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” helped mark a rise of Black women’s voices in literature. James Baldwin, who contributed a foreword, praised Meriwether for telling “everyone who can read or feel what it means to be a black man or woman in this country.” National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson was among many who would later credit the novel with helping inspire them to become authors.
In 2016 the Feminist Press and TAYO Literary Magazine launched the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize for “debut women/nonbinary writers of color.” The same year she received a lifetime achievement from the Before Columbus Foundation for her contributions to multicultural literature.
Meriwether was dedicated to enlightening young readers about the achievements of Black people and completed biographies of Rosa Parks, heart surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams and Robert Smalls, an escaped slave who became a Civil War hero and member of Congress. Her other novels included the Civil War drama “Fragments of the Ark” and the modern love story “Shadow Dancing.”
Meriwether also was a journalist who wrote for the Los Angeles Times, Essence and other publications and a self-described “peacenik” who would recall dodging eggs while marching in May Day parades, protesting the “disastrous” policies of the IMF and World Bank and being arrested during a sit-in against the extremist John Birch Society. As head of the anti-apartheid organization Black Concern, she protested Muhammad Ali’s plan in 1972 to fight before a racially segregated audience in South Africa. (The bout was eventually cancelled over financial issues).
Meriwether taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Houston. She was married twice, to Angelo Meriwether and Earle Howe, with both marriages ending in divorce.
“Daddy Was a Number Runner” was a personal story. She was born Louise Jenkins in Haverstraw, New York, and later moved to Brooklyn and then Harlem, one of five children of a housekeeper and a janitor who became a number runner when he couldn’t find work. A passionate reader, Meriwether vowed to rise above the “deep feeling of shame” she felt over being in an all-white grade school in Brooklyn, to write her way “out of the wilderness.”
She majored in English at New York University and in her 40s received a master’s in journalism from UCLA. She developed “Daddy Was a Number Runner” through the Watts Writers Workshop, founded by screenwriter Budd Schulberg and others in 1965 not long after the devastating riots in South Central Los Angeles. Around the same time, she became one of the few Black women working in Hollywood, hired as a story analyst by Universal Studios. After returning to New York in the late 1960s, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and befriended Angelou and Sonia Sanchez, among others.
In a 2010 commencement speech at Pine Manor College, Meriwether explained that writing meant the willingness to draw upon the “totality” of one’s self. She remembered criticizing a story submitted by a Black student at Sarah Lawrence, contending that the young woman had not revealed everything she knew.
“She replied, ‘If I write the truth I’ll be crying every step of the way,'” Meriwether said of the student. “‘All right,’ I counseled, ‘Rewrite it and cry.'”