Mary Elizabeth Vroman (1924?-1967) was a young Alabama schoolteacher when she published her first story, “See How They Run.” Based on her own classroom experiences, the story appeared in the June 1951 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. Like most of her writing, it depicts impoverished or otherwise challenged characters overcoming adversity.
Born in Buffalo, New York, in the mid-1920s, Vroman grew up in the British West Indies. Following in the footsteps of three generations of women educators on her mother’s side, she prepared for a teaching career at Alabama State Teachers College (now Alabama State University), from which she graduated in August 1949. Vroman then began a 20-year teaching career in Alabama and later taught at schools in Chicago and New York.
Vroman’s “See How They Run” tells the story of a young, idealistic teacher encouraging her students to escape from their impoverished environment through education. Comparing the 43 third graders in the story to the blind mice in the familiar nursery rhyme, Vroman details the teacher’s struggle to provide academic, financial, and emotional support for them and their families so that they can achieve success. “See How They Run” won a Christopher Award for its “humanitarian quality” and was later made into the motion picture Bright Road in 1953. Vroman wrote the screenplay, becoming the first black woman member of the Screen Writers’ Guild.
Like “See How They Run,” Vroman’s first novel, Esther (1963), is about poor southern blacks overcoming economic and social injustice. Lydia Jones, a midwife, struggles to provide financial aid and strength of character to her granddaughter, Esther, who wants to be a nurse. Esther struggles to reach her goal; she becomes a domestic worker, is sexually assaulted by her employer’s son, has a baby, and eventually ends up working as a nurse in a segregated hospital. Esther improves conditions for patients at the hospital, becomes a supervisor, and is voted woman of the year by a local organization.
Harlem Summer (1967) is a young adult novel about 16-year old John Brown, who leaves his home in Montgomery to spend the summer in Harlem living with relatives and working at a white-owned grocery store. John learns that his attitude about his life in a loving, caring family in segregated Montgomery contrasts sharply with that of Mark, a co-worker at the grocery store who is angry that whites own most of the businesses in Harlem. John sees how Harlem’s inhabitants use anger, complacency, withdrawal, and pride to cope with life. He decides to become a lawyer and work to foster positive action to overcome obstacles in the lives of economically deprived African Americans.
Vroman’s life was cut short when she died on April 29, 1967, of complications following surgery. She was survived by her husband, Oliver M. Harper, a dentist.
Works by Mary Elizabeth Vroman
“See How They Run” (1951)
“And Have Not Charity” (1951)
Bright Road (screenplay, 1953)
Shaped to Its Purpose: Delta Sigma Theta, The First Fifty Years (1965)
Harlem Summer (1967)
Bachner, Saul. “Black Literature: The Junior Novel in the Classroom: Harlem Summer.” Negro American Literature Forum 7 (Spring 1973): 26-27.