Louise Meriwether, who passed away on October 10, 2023, at the age of 100, was an American novelist, essayist, journalist and activist, as well as a writer of biographies of historically important African Americans for children. She is best known for her first novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner (1970), which draws on autobiographical elements about growing up in Harlem, New York City, during the Depression and in the era after the Harlem Renaissance.
Early Life and Education
Meriwether was born in Haverstraw, New York, to Marion Lloyd Jenkins and Julia Jenkins, who migrated north from South Carolina in search of work after the stock market crash of 1929. She was the only daughter and the third of five children. She graduated from Central Commercial High School in Manhattan and then studied at night for a B.A. degree in English from New York University while working as a secretary. She later earned an M.A. in journalism in 1965 from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she moved with her first husband, Angelo Meriwether, a Los Angeles teacher. She had two marriages, both ending in divorce, but she continued to use the name Meriwether.
Writing Career and Activism
Meriwether published her first and most successful book, Daddy Was a Number Runner, in 1970, with a foreword by James Baldwin. The novel is widely regarded as a groundbreaking and vital portrait of race, gender and class, as it tells the story of a poor Black community in Harlem during the 1930s through the eyes of 12-year-old Francie Coffin. The novel is considered a classic and has inspired many other writers, such as Jacqueline Woodson. 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 award from the Before Columbus Foundation for her contributions to multicultural literature.
Meriwether also wrote 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. She also worked as a freelance reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Essence and other publications and was a self-described “peacenik” who participated in various social movements and protests.
Meriwether was part of a group of young New York-based writer friends that included Rosa Guy and Maya Angelou. She was also approached to be editor-in-chief of a new magazine for Black women called Essence but she declined, saying she preferred to write for them2. Her article “Black Man, Do You Love Me?” appeared as the cover story for the magazine’s first issue in May 1970.
Meriwether was a trailblazer who used her voice and pen to illuminate the experiences and struggles of Black people in America. She left behind a legacy of powerful and poignant works that will continue to resonate with readers for generations to come.
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