Ellen Tarry

Author Ellen Tarry (1906-2008) was born and raised in Birmingham, and got her start as a writer working for the Birmingham Truth, an African American newspaper, in the late 1920s. Later a minor figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Tarry authored children’s books and also had a rich and varied career as a social worker and a social service administrator and was a founder of Friendship House in Chicago. Most assessments of her writing career argue that her most important work was her autobiography, The Third Door: The Autobiography of an American Negro Woman, published in 1955. Though marginal in most accounts of the history of African American literature, she maintained important friendships with many major figures in that field, including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and most notably poet Claude McKay.

Ellen Tarry was born September 26, 1906, and raised in a middle-class family in the African American Sixth Avenue neighborhood. Her father, John Tarry, was a prosperous barber and a deacon at First Congregational Church, and her mother, Eula Meadows Tarry, was a seamstress; she had two sisters. Tarry’s father planned often to move the family to Chicago to find increased economic and social opportunities, but he died before any such plans could come to fruition. In Birmingham, Tarry graduated from Slater School and spent a year at Industrial High School. She left Alabama in 1921 after her father’s death to study at St. Francis de Sales, a Catholic boarding school in Rock Castle, Virginia. This time outside segregated Birmingham was crucial to Tarry, a young woman imagining rich horizons for herself and a life that exceeded the traditional limits placed upon black women in the first half of the twentieth century. The experience at St. Francis also began a process in which she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922, embracing its social mission but breaking a promise to her father that she would not become Catholic.

Tarry graduated from the school in 1923 and returned to Alabama. She then studied at the State Normal School for Negroes (present-day Alabama State University) in Montgomery, hoping to enter the teaching profession. Between 1925 and 1929, Tarry held a variety of substitute and full-time teaching positions in Birmingham schools for African Americans, including the Slater School. The closing of that institution and a new unsatisfactory teaching appointment prompted Tarry to focus on becoming a writer. Tarry shared some sketches she had written for her students with Guillermo Tallifero, the editor of The Birmingham Truth, and he gave her the opportunity for which she had been waiting. In 1929, she began to write a regular column known as “Negroes of Note,” in which she celebrated key figures in African American history but also criticized racial segregation and discrimination.

Tarry moved to New York City in 1929 with the goal of entering Columbia University’s journalism school. The early years of the Great Depression, however, made it impossible for her to enroll in classes, and she made ends meet by working as a waitress, elevator operator, and nanny. Being a light-skinned African American, she would later describe her internal conflicts about “passing” as a white but informing potential employers of her race despite badly needing work. At the same time, she slowly became a fixture among the group of African American intellectuals who belonged to what scholars have termed the Harlem Renaissance. She developed important relationships with journalist Roi Ottley and poet Claude McKay, became a member of the Negro Writers’ Guild, and wrote for the Amsterdam News, a well-known African American weekly. The relationship with McKay led to a children’s literature fellowship with progressive education reformer Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and allowed her to mingle in progressive education circles and begin work on her first book. During this time, she also became active in Roman Catholic intellectual and social action groups in Harlem, most importantly with Catherine de Hueck and her Friendship House missionary project. Tarry lectured informally at Friendship House and was eventually invited to launch a Chicago branch. After overseeing the launch of the Chicago Friendship House, she returned to New York toward the end of World War II and worked for the National Catholic Community Service—United Service Organizations, or USO. Sometime in the mid-1940s, Tarry was secretly and briefly married, a union that produced a daughter in November 1944. Throughout the decade, she became increasingly involved in Roman Catholic race relations and was an important broker in helping the U.S. church modernize and prepare for desegregation in later decades.

By the end of the 1940s, Tarry had completed three children’s books (Janie Belle, Hezekiah Horton, and My Dog Rinty) that were well received and would assure her of a lasting place in the American children’s literature canon. At this time, she began also to write a memoir in which she acknowledged the specific and real limitations of racial prejudice while also affirming the idea that individual acts could create new circumstances. It is an important autobiography that documented her rich life experiences in Alabama, Chicago, and New York. Compared to other African American autobiographies written at mid-century, The Third Door, published in 1955 after the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, was distinctly optimistic and hopeful in its outlook. Its rich summation suggested that there was a new, deeply spiritual pathway opening up for Americans in a post-racial society. In the afterword to the 1966 edition, however, she expresses some dismay that her fairly utopian vision had remained unfulfilled.

During the 1960s, Tarry participated in two iconic civil rights events, the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. She also wrote three religious biographies: Martin de Porres: Saint of the New World (1963); The Other Toussaint: A Modern Biography of Pierre Toussaint, a Post-Revolutionary Black (1981); and Pierre Toussaint: Apostle of Old New York (1998), while continuing to write children’s literature late into her life. While in New York, she also worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regional office. Tarry died at the age of 101 in New York City on September 23, 2008.

Tarry has remained a unique figure in the literary tradition of Alabama because of the many ways in which she bridged and connected diverse experiences. Prior to her death, she had been honored by the National Black Arts Festival as a “Living Legend” for her positive portrayal of African Americans in childrens’ books and also by the Catholic Church for her work on behalf of that institution.

Works by Ellen Tarry

Janie Belle (1940)

Hezekiah Horton (1942)

My Dog Rinty (1946)

The Runaway Elephant (1950)

The Third Door: The Autobiography of an American Negro Woman (1955)

Katharine Drexel: Friend of the Neglected (1958) later revised as Saint Katharine Drexel

Martin de Porres: Saint of the New World (1963)

Young Jim: The Early Years of James Weldon Johnson (1967)

The Other Toussaint: A Modern Biography of Pierre Toussaint, a Post-Revolutionary Black (1981)

Pierre Toussaint: Apostle of Old New York (1998)

Friend of the Oppressed (2000)

Additional Resources

Brown, Stephanie. “Bourgeois Blackness and Autobiographical Authenticity in Ellen Tarry’s The Third Door.” African American Review 41 (Fall 2007): 557-70.

Capshaw Smith, Katherine. “From Bank Street to Harlem: A Conversation with Ellen Tarry.” The Lion and the Unicorn 23 (April 1999): 271-285.

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