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  • From Bank Street to Harlem: A Conversation with Ellen Tarry
  • Katharine Capshaw Smith (bio)

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Figure 1.

Ellen Tarry

Ellen Tarry (1906-) is an African-American author of picture books and young adult biography. Raised In Birmingham, Alabama, she came to New York City in 1929, at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, and became friends with many of the movement’s major figures, such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen. The first “Negro Scholarship” recipient at the Bank Street School, Tarry studied with Lucy Sprague Mitchell from 1937 to 1939 and formed a friendship with Margaret Wise Brown whom Tarry calls “Brownie.” Tarry published four picture books: Janie Belle (1940, illustrated by Myrtle Sheldon) describes the adoption of an abandoned African-American child by a white nurse; Hezekiah Horton (1942, illustrated by the celebrated black political cartoonist Oliver Harrington) depicts the friendship between a white man, Mr. Ed, and a black child, Hezekiah—the story was developed from Tarry’s relationship with Eddie Doherty, a prominent reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Liberty magazine; The Runaway Elephant (1950, illustrated by Harrington) develops the friendship between Hezekiah and Mr. Ed; and the important My Dog Rinty (1946, photographs by Alexander and Alexandra Alland) was written in collaboration with Caldecott winner Marie Hall Ets and explores the life of a working-class Harlem family and their trouble-making pet. Tarry’s The Third Door: The Autobiography of an American Negro Woman (1955), often included in courses on black women’s nonfiction, describes her upbringing, life in New York, friendship with Claude McKay, and commitment to Catholicism. With Baroness Catherine de Hueck, Tarry helped institute the Harlem “Friendship House,” a Catholic outreach center that promoted interracial fellowship. Briefly married, Tarry has one daughter, Elizabeth Tarry Patton. Tarry’s books of young adult biography include Katherine Drexel: Friend of the Neglected (1958), Martin de Porres: Saint of the New World (1963), Young Jim: The Early Years of James Weldon Johnson (1967), and The Other Toussaint: A Post-Revolutionary Black (1981).

In the interview, Tarry describes her study at the Bank Street School and the centrality of a “here and now” perspective to her picture books. Tarry foregrounds the School’s commitment to cultural diversity, a dimension not often emphasized [End Page 271] in critical constructions of the landmark institution. Importantly, children’s literature emerges as a vital topic of debate during the Harlem Renaissance, a subject that engaged and embattled many of the movement’s key figures. Tarry also sheds new light on creative networks of women who nurtured and promoted each other’s work during the Harlem Renaissance. Through the interview, a window opens on interracial friendships and creative collaborations of the period, as well as Tarry’s own partnership with the white publishing establishment at Viking. Ellen Tarry’s account of her life and work as an author of picture books helps us reimagine the genesis of an African-American children’s literature tradition and recover its groundbreaking early voices.


Who influenced your work? Did you always plan to write for children?


No. Well, as a teacher in Birmingham, I realized that many of the children I taught had no idea that there was a world beyond the mountains that enclosed Birmingham. And to try to explain that to them, I had to come up with stories for them about people who had, like them, lived in Birmingham but who had done other things. So I didn’t plan to write for children; I just wanted to be a writer. But as a teacher, [I saw] there was a need, and I had to use whatever skills I had to try to get through to the children, and writing was the way to do that. [End Page 272]


When you were writing in Birmingham, did you know of Effie Lee Newsome, 1 who was also writing for children in Birmingham at the time?


Yes, and she was a recluse, so to speak. She was Bishop Newsome’s second wife, and I was very friendly with the children from the first marriage, and she did not socialize. We knew she...

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