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Anna Louise James, also known as Miss James, at the James Pharmacy (Photo courtesy of the James Pharmacy Bed & Breakfast and Gelateria )
Samantha Stewart works at the James Pharmacy and can tell you chapter and verse of the James Family story. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Two works by Ann Petry of Old Saybrook are being re-released this month with new introductions that help put them in historical, geographic, and literary context. (Photo by Stephen Dunn provided courtesy of the Old Saybrook Historical Society )
The James Family letters are stored at the Beinecke Library in New Haven. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Pat McGregor, second from left, the innkeeper of the Deacon Timothy Pratt Bed & Breakfast, which is next to the James Pharmacy, enjoys a summer evening outside the pharmacy with her husband Bill McGregor, and her friends Linda and Michael Gardner. They too know about the history of the pharmacy, and have fond stories of the people who lived and worked there. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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While out on her evening walk about a week or so ago, Lauren Cryan stopped in front of the James Pharmacy at the corner of Main Street and Pennywise Lane in Old Saybrook. Cryan, who has lived in town for more than two decades, remembers when it was actually a pharmacy, and when it was an art gallery, and when it was a restaurant, and when it was an ice cream parlor and soda shop. Like many Old Saybrook residents, she is proud of the store’s past, as the place where two remarkable women—Anna Louise James and Ann Petry—would thrive, one as an accomplished entrepreneur and the other as a wildly successful novelist.
Cryan stepped into the shop that evening, under the new sign out front that says “Caffe Marche at James Pharmacy,” and looked around at the space, all shiny and spiffed up and ready for its latest incarnation as a gelato shop and upscale Italian eatery. She asked Samantha Stewart, who was working there that evening, about the new menu, and Stewart, a senior at Old Saybrook High School, gave her all of the details. Cryan was pleased that there was a new business opening up in the space. Then she noticed something was missing.
“This is really nice,” she said. “But I’m sad to see the old soda fountain gone.”
We talked for a bit as I finished up the gelato I had ordered earlier—pistachio on Stewart’s recommendation, along with peach because it sounded good—and our talk made me think about what is gained and what is lost as we move forward through history, as well as what we remember and what we forget. What I would be reminded of many times while working on this story that our historical accounts depends on this: who is telling the story.
A Big Month
This particular July is a big month for the story of the James family. While the James Pharmacy, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, undergoes its transformation into the new business, there is a broadcast-length documentary awaiting a funding decision in August. The documentary, already in the works, is based on family letters Ann Petry’s daughter, Liz Petry, found stored in an ice cream cone tin being used as an end table of sorts in the family home.
The letters have since been organized and archived in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in New Haven, one of the world’s largest and most renowned literary archives, so that scholars can use them going forward. The documentary Liz Petry and a team are putting together endeavors to tell the story of the James family with all of its impressive entrepreneurial and literary successes, along with the enduring complications involving race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and class.
The story of this particular James family starts with the patriarch, Willis Samuel James, who was born a slave around 1847, escaped to freedom around the time of the Civil War, and came north to Connecticut. His children included the entrepreneurial Bertha James Lane, who married a man who would become the first African-American pharmacist in Connecticut. One of Willis James’s other daughters was Anna Louise James, known in Old Saybrook as Miss James. She took the pharmacy over from Bertha’s husband, renamed it James Pharmacy in 1917, ran it in Old Saybrook at the corner of Pennywise Lane until 1967, and lived in the rooms there until her death in 1977. Bertha James Lane’s daughter was Ann Petry, the successful novelist, who also worked as a journalist for a bit, and was also a trained pharmacist.
Liz Petry says the documentary project has filed an application with the National Endowment for the Humanities for a $75,000 media development grant. The project also has received support from the Community Foundation of Middlesex County. The additional funds would allow them to write a full script, hire actors, and film in locations where the family lived and worked, says Petry, an author in her own right.
“We won’t know ‘til August whether [the grant is] approved. In the meantime, we’re soliciting funds from companies, non-profits, and individuals,” she says.
A video clip prepared as part of the project draws from the more than 400 cards, letters, and postcards found stored in that ice cream cone tin, along with Ann Petry’s diary. In her diary, Ann Petry notes that she is a Connecticut Yankee and that four generations of her family have been born in Connecticut.
“So to borrow a phrase from the Quakers, I am a birthright New Englander. But, of course, I am not,” she says, in a diary excerpt used on the video clip. “I am an outsider, not a member of the club because my grandfather, Willis Samuel James, was a runaway slave who came here on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.”
She goes on to say that Old Saybrook, filled with the smell of sea salt, and the sound of waterbirds, seems like “the perfect New England Village.”
“Except the reality for me was something different,” she says. “How did my family manage to survive intact in this large white community? How did my parents manage to give their children a sense of self-confidence, self-worth?”
She cites her father’s work as a pharmacist to the community, and calls her mother “the rock of our family, a self-made entrepreneur, a mentor, and a guardian to all of us.” She also talks about her amazing aunts and uncles: they were school teachers, the creator of a successful correspondence course in reading and literature, circus roustabouts, seamen, pullmen, porters, barbers, a buffalo soldier in the Spanish American War, a smuggler of Chinese workers between the United States and Canada, and someone who was sentenced to a chain gang after being found in a town after sunset, she says in her diary.
“My uncles and aunts were storytellers, yarn spinners, and letter writers,” she says. “Through these letters I survived the pain. I learned about the world outside of Old Saybrook.”
A Far Cry from the Promised Land
As for her world inside of Old Saybrook and how it informed her literary work, additional light is being shed on that as well, since, also in July, Northwestern University Press is re-issuing two of Ann Petry’s works—Miss Muriel and Other Stories, and The Narrows.
Gianna Mosser, the editor in chief of Northwestern University Press, says the new introduction to Miss Muriel and Other Stories “talks about how it is that most people aren’t familiar with Ann’s work and why her centering on black women’s stories needs to be heeded and centered in contemporary literary and political conversation.” The introduction to The Narrows, considered Petry’s “most complicated work,” Mosser says, takes up, among many issues “the media’s role of depictions of black masculinity and respectability, the historic fear around interracial relationships, and how class operates in social stratification.” She says the goal of that introduction in part is to “provide instructors with a number of roads into teaching this novel about racism in New England.”
Mosser notes that, for the most part, if people are familiar with the works of Ann Petry, it is for her novel The Street, “the first novel by a black woman to crest one million copies sold. It’s an important work, but one that sends a very different message about the possibility for social change than these other works we have the honor of reintroducing.
“We care deeply about Ann Petry’s literary legacy and the entire Northwestern University Press is honored to be publishing new editions of these works,” she says.
Keith Clark, in his introduction to The Narrows, says Petry “repudiated her New England roots unreservedly...The New England that Petry recollects is a far cry from a northern promised land, a chimerical place that in reality failed to offer succor or comfort to scores of blacks fleeing a pernicious South.”
Clark draws from an essay Petry wrote in a 1946 edition of Negro Digest, titled “My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience.”
“I didn’t learn about Jim Crow in Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi. I learned about it in Connecticut a long time ago at a Sunday School picnic,” she wrote. She recalls while attending her class’s annual outing to the local beach that a “big red-faced man” who worked as a guard at the beach told her that people of color—he used the n-word—were not allowed on the beach. “The teacher accedes to his wishes,” Clark writes, “leading the class’s departure without protest.”
Ann Petry also remembers when, at the age of four, she and her six year-old sister were targeted by a group of boys who threw stones at the girls as they walked home from school. When she was in the 6th grade, her teacher told the class to read out loud a story that featured an illiterate, unintelligent slave character who insisted on serving his master even after being told he could go free.
Clark says Petry wrote: “Obviously the small New England village in which I was born provided an essentially hostile environment for a black family.”
Clark also emphasizes that Petry’s New England life was “not solely defined by painful experiences” thanks to the family’s middle class status. Not only was her father a successful pharmacist, but her mother and aunts were entrepreneurs and businesswomen, “who eschewed conventional, constricting gender protocols,” and who “abandoned the role of housewife in the early 20th century.”
After her writing in high school led to her being singled out for praise, Petry set her sights on becoming a writer, first as a journalist, then as a novelist, and writer of short stories, and children’s books.
Clark joins other literary critics in his unstinting praise of The Narrows, which Petry herself proudly called “a great novel.”
“Given its panoramic scope...from its engagement of the historicity of slavery and its attendant traumatic memories, to de- and re-constructions of family and the profit-obsessed media’s complicity in sowing racial discord through malignant visual images—the reputation of The Narrows can only continue to soar as new audiences encounter this unheralded classic of American literature.”
And then there are the stories told by some who live in town, who knew Miss James well, and have fond memories and sweet stories of her and her family.
Barbara Maynard, the former first selectman of Old Saybrook, remembers the James family as “lovely people,” and Ann Petry’s involvement as someone who ran for and got elected to the Old Saybrook Board of Education.
“She never missed a meeting,” Maynard says. “She was a very stable person and the typical perfect citizen to have in a small town. She was a mother, a wife, a good citizen, a friend to everybody she knew. She was very interested in young people, and education and she would try to encourage people to become what they could become. She just felt there were no limits to what anybody wanted to do.”
Maynard says she remembers the family being well received in town.
“There was no question about who they were, where they came from or what color they were,” she says. “None at all, they were just a lovely family.”
She says Petry’s aunt, Miss James, “was famous in town...Even though she may not have had children of her own, she passed on the values that she had as a pharmacist, and store owner, and small town citizen.”
Maynard remembers vividly, as do others in town, that the pharmacy had the town’s first telephone and, even better, the town’s first telephone booth.
“When I was just a kid, if you needed to make a phone call, you went to Miss James. If you had a problem with poison ivy, you went to Miss James and she’d tell you want to do,” says Maynard, who came to Old Saybrook during the summers with her grandparents. “If we needed anything, we went to Miss James to get it. There was a beautiful relationship between Miss James and her townspeople. And, oh, you could get ice cream cones. Not very big ones, but nevertheless, wonderful sugar cones.”
She said Miss James’s store stocked everything you needed for everyday life, sort of like a general store, and that many in that area of town also picked up their mail there.
“She was everybody’s doctor, nurse, companion, and friend..and oh I remember that phone booth,” Maynard says. “I can remember that phone booth ‘til this day.
Maynard says she is excited about the documentary and the work being done by new owners of the James Pharmacy, “an important part of the history of Old Saybrook...I’m just so happy it will be reopened...It’ll be a destination.”
She says the history of the James family will live on forever “because people are just so enthusiastic about it. It’s a nice story, and a story that should be sent down through the ages. It sets the tone for what people can do.”
An All-American Story
Liz Petry wrote in one of her books about her mother that Ann Petry decided to run for and win that seat on the Board of Education to spare her daughter the pain she suffered in school. And the truth is that the offensive tale about slaves reluctant to leave their masters to seek freedom, and who sought to recreate “the good old days” of slavery, is still being told by those who would defend the Confederacy, most recently in an op-ed published earlier this month in a mainstream Connecticut newspaper.
Still, Liz Petry says she understands how some people would have seen her mother as accepted and admired in the community, even as her mother felt like an outsider. Liz Petry remembers once visiting Jamaica and visiting a bank, and seeing the black clerk waving her up in front of the line “ahead of the white tourists.”
“At first I didn’t know she meant me, she just kind of smiled at me and waited on me and of course Jamaica is a majority black country. I don’t know if the other folks standing in line got the message, but I sure did,” she says.
For all the people who judged the members of the James family for their entrepreneurial success, their smarts, and their insistence on serving and being a part of the larger community, there would always be those who were parsing the shape of their noses, the texture of their hair, and the color of their skin.
Still, Petry appreciates Maynard’s stories about and perspective on her family.
“I would certainly say she’s not the only person who has expressed that opinion. That is the way she sees the world and that is wonderful,” she says. “In the end, it is the all-American story, a story of how to be successful despite setbacks, despite the odds, despite what others might think. African Americans have had to fight that battle over and over and over again. People who came over as immigrants, by the second generation, sometimes they are members of the club. But we never have been, and it has to do with the way we came here.”
What lessons does she think people will take away from her family’s story, as told in the documentary?
“The lesson will be whatever lesson people take away from it,” she says. “But we will show African Americans in the late 19th century and early 20th century who were educated, accomplished, who traveled widely, and brought their views of the world to other people in a very successful way.”
As for Samantha Stewart, who was scooping out my gelato after making that excellent recommendation for the pistachio flavor, she is just thrilled to be working in the same building where Miss James and Ann Petry made history. Stewart also works at the Old Saybrook Historical Society, says she wants to be a writer and journalist, and she can recite chapter and verse of the James family story, what they did, how they did it, and where they lived when they did it. Her favorite story by Ann Petry is The Drugstore Cat, where a short-tempered cat learns how to be patient and exercise self restraint.
“I think there’s still a copy of it in the back room,” she says, moving the pistachio gelato aside to start scooping out the peach gelato. “And there are stories in the display in back about the history of the family. Miss James lived here until she died. The business has changed hands so many times.”
Placing my cup on the counter, she reflects back on what she’s heard about the family’s story.
“Knowing everything about them, and working in the pharmacy where these women made history, where women of color made history, that was just such a big leap. I’m scooping ice cream in a place where these women made history.”
She shakes her head.
“It’s bizarre. But in a good way.”