We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Can Anything Beat White?

A Black Family's Letters

Publication Year: 2005

Ann Petry (1908-1997) achieved prominence during a period in which few black women were published with regularity in America. Her novels Country Place (1947) and The Narrows (1988), along with various short stories and nonfiction, poignantly described the struggles and triumphs of middle-class blacks living in primarily white communities. Petry's ancestors, the James family, served as in-spiration for much of her fiction. This collection of more than four hundred family letters, edited by the daughter of Ann Petry, is an engaging portrait of black family life from the 1890s to the early twentieth century, a period not often documented by African American voices. Ann Petry's maternal grandfather, Willis Samuel James, was a slave taught by his children to read and write. He believed "the best place for the negro is as near the white man as he can get." He followed that "truth," working as coachman for a Connecticut governor and buying a house in a white neighborhood in Hartford. Willis had sixteen children by three wives. The letters in this collection are from him and his second wife, Anna E. Houston James, and five of Anna's children, of whom novelist Ann Petry's mother, Bertha James Lane, was the oldest. History is made and remade by the availability of new documents, sources, and interpretations. Can Anything Beat White? contributes a great deal to this process. The experiences of the James family as documented in their letters challenge both representations of black people at the turn of the century as well as our contemporary sense of black Americans. Elisabeth Petry is a freelance writer with a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She lives in Middletown, Connecticut. Her work has appeared in Northeast (the magazine of the Hartford Courant) and Work-Boat magazine.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (87.0 KB)
pp. ix-xix

...an Anything Beat White? A Black Family’s Letters only offered us a glimpse into the life of a nineteenth-century African American family that would more than warrant its publication. So rare are lettersfrom African Americans, particularly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that their very existence signals a significant histor-...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (40.1 KB)
pp. xxi-xxii

When I started editing these letters, I had no idea how much I would be learning about the world inhabited by my ancestors.My task became far easier because of the kindness and generosity of friends and family who answered my persistent questions and listened to me lament the slow progress of my work. So, thank you to all—especially my beloved husband Lawrence Riley, who has the patience of...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (77.7 KB)
pp. xxiii-xxx

Willis H. James had seen more than his share of conflict and grief in his twenty-eight years. After leaving his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, he survived guerrilla warfare, near starvation,and forced marches barefoot through the mountains of the Philippines as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Upon his return from Southeast Asia, he had taken jobs, often in hostile environments, as a waiter and a barber....

read more

Chapter 1: Surviving the Patterrollers

pdf iconDownload PDF (83.9 KB)
pp. 3-21

Willis S. James’s only legacy to his children and grandchildren from his years as a slave was a nursery rhyme that he sang as he bounced them on his knee, “Run, little baby, run. Or patterrollers goin’ He was born into a society that did not keep many vital records, particularly of its colored citizens. According to family lore, Willis grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and escaped the “patterrollers” in the early...

read more

Chapter 2: The Surrogate Mother

pdf iconDownload PDF (84.2 KB)
pp. 22-40

Willis and Anna Houston James may not have been in a position to give their children riches, but they gave them a sense of self-worth and faith in their own abilities that lasted them throughout their lives. That confidence began with their oldest, Bertha Ernestine James. Anna cherished Bertha, molding her into a loving woman who nurtured her brothers and sisters and later her own children and their friends....

read more

Chapter 3: The Wanderer

pdf iconDownload PDF (101.5 KB)
pp. 41-66

Willis H. James changed names, addresses, and jobs so often his family frequently lost track of him. He carried his father’s first name, but he was not a junior, nor was he the oldest son. Charles Howard James, son of Anna Webb, was thirteen years old when Willis was born. Based on the letters he left behind and his frequent disappearances, Willis chose to be elusive—a ladies man and a con man, one not...

read more

Chapter 4: Consumed by Life

pdf iconDownload PDF (100.5 KB)
pp. 67-92

Harriet Georgiana James’s brief life was a study in youthful energy, joie de vivre, and pathos. Consumption took her before she turned twenty-three, but while she lived, lack of faith in herself caused her greater anguish. Not long before she died, she wrote to Bertha from school, “I wonder and wonder why it is these people are so kind and good to me?” The answers came in letters of condolence from the fac...

read more

Chapter 5: Getting Along Swimmingly

pdf iconDownload PDF (839.8 KB)
pp. 93-107

Harold Edward James, born February 3, 1884, enrolled at Hampton Institute as an energetic boy of fifteen. He found his life’s vocation working on the school’s eight-hundred-acre farm at Shellbanks, where students earned money to pay their tuition and produced food that the school sold to supplement its income. Shortly after he left Hampton,Harold bought and operated a farm in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Later...

read more

Chapter 6: Setting the Stage

pdf iconDownload PDF (89.5 KB)
pp. 108-128

Compared to her brothers and sisters, Helen Lou Evelyn James was barely five feet tall. What she lacked in stature, however, she compensated for with an indomitable spirit. Born September 1, 1876, Helen was the most prolific James correspondent and, except for Willis, the best traveled. She was the first member of the James family to attend Hampton Institute, a tradition that ended when her niece, Anna Houston Lane (Ann...

read more

Chapter 7: Writing for Posterity from Hawaii

pdf iconDownload PDF (104.7 KB)
pp. 129-155

Helen was not the first person to go to Hawaii from Hampton Institute. Samuel Chapman Armstrong grew up in Hawaii as the son of missionaries, and he modeled Hampton on the all-male Hilo Boarding School. Founded in 1836 to train missionaries, Hilo shifted its focus to preparing young Hawaiians to become carpenters, house painters, and shoemakers. Armstrong maintained his ties with the islands during...

read more

Chapter 8: Challenges at Atlanta University

pdf iconDownload PDF (60.2 KB)
pp. 156-164

Helen neglected her correspondence for several weeks upon her arrival in Atlanta in September 1904. “You know me well enough to know that I can not accomplish much when unsettled. For this reason I have not written ere this. The days have been a series of packings and unpackings. To-night I feel fairly comfortable as bureau, washstand, closet and desk are in fair working order.” On her way to Georgia, she...

read more

Chapter 9: A Lark a Flyin’

pdf iconDownload PDF (56.6 KB)
pp. 165-172

The Penn School began at the Oaks Plantation on the island of St. Helena in 1862, shortly after the Union Army landed on Hilton Head and swept north on its way to Beaufort, South Carolina. With the arrival of the federal troops, the plantation owners fled, torching their houses. They left behind the descendants of Africans who had lived in an isolation unknown elsewhere in the United States. They preserved...

read more

Chapter 10: Achieving a Dream

pdf iconDownload PDF (69.9 KB)
pp. 173-185

In early October 1906, Helen arrived at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee, where she taught school Tuesday through Saturday. Mondays she filled with sweeping, dusting, and scrubbing her residence, going into town, playing tennis, entertaining students, and preparing the next day’s lessons. She told Bertha that she found her fellow teachers “most congenial” and said she wished she had...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (44.6 KB)
pp. 186-190

By the time you wrote your letters, slave owners had obliterated traditions we brought from Africa, except for one. Through the ages we retained a love for each other that expressed itself by honoring the memory of those who had gone before. For us, ancestor veneration meant not blind worship but a living interaction, a conversation in which we ques...

E-ISBN-13: 9781617030680
E-ISBN-10: 1617030686
Print-ISBN-13: 9781578067855
Print-ISBN-10: 1578067855

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2005