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Meriwether, Louise

Also known as: Louise Jenkins  
Born: 1923 
Occupation: novelist, activist
From: Facts On File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Literature, Encyclopedia of Black Women in America.

"I have been deeply concerned for many years by the way African Americans fell through the cracks of history," writes Louise Meriwether, "and I reacted by attempting to set the record straight" (In Letter to Rita Dandridge 1981). Her attempt was to involve herself with race issues and to write about the remarkable exploits of African Americans, which, she insists, are not black history but American history.

Louise Meriwether was born May 8, 1923, in Haverstraw, New York, to Marion Lloyd Jenkins and Julie Jenkins, South Carolinians who had migrated to New York via Philadelphia in search of a better life. The only daughter and the third of five children, she had moved with her family to Brooklyn and later to Harlem, where, trapped by the Great Depression, her father became a numbers runner. She grew up on welfare and attended P.S. 81. Meriwether graduated from Central Commercial High School in downtown Manhattan, received a B.A. in English from New York University, and an M.A. in journalism from the University of California in Los Angeles, where she moved with Angelo Meriwether, her first husband. That marriage ended in divorce, and so did her second marriage, to Earl Howe. Meriwether currently lives in New York City with her mother.

Primarily as a writer, Meriwether has raised the consciousness of black Americans about their history. While a newspaper woman for the Los Angeles Sentinel from 1961 to 1964, she published articles on significant but little-known African Americans (Grace Bumbry, a singer; Audrey Boswell, an attorney; and Vaino Spencer, a Los Angeles judge) who overcame great odds to achieve success; she also published an article on Matthew Henson, the African American who was the first man to stand atop the North Pole. She revised and published one of her graduate theses as "The Negro: Half a Man in a White World" in the October 1965 issue of Negro Digest. In 1970, her first novel, Daddy Was a Numbers Runner, which documents the corrosive effects of the economic depression on the Coffins, a black Harlem family on welfare, was published. The novel received favorable reviews and was reissued by the Feminist Press in its black-women-writers series. It garnered two grants for Meriwether in 1973: one from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., and the other from the Creative Arts Service Program, an auxiliary of the New York State Council on the Arts. In addition to a number of history-related short stories and essays, Meriwether has published three children's books on historical figures: The Freedom Ship of Robert Smalls (1971), The Heart Man: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1972), and Don't Ride the Bus on Monday: The Rosa Parks Story (1973). Her Fragments of the Ark (1994) is a Civil War novel told from the point of view of several slaves and deals with, perhaps for the first time, the 150,000 black soldiers and the thousands of field hands who deserted their masters' plantations—crippling the Confederacy—to work as laborers for the Union army.

Meriwether has frequently interrupted her writing to participate in civil-rights activities. In 1965, she trekked to Bogalusa, Louisiana, to work with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and tote guns for the Deacons, a black coalition that maintained a twenty-four-hour patrol to secure the area's black citizens from the forays of the Ku Klux Klan. Two years later, she opposed Hollywood director Norman Jewison and Twentieth Century-Fox producer David L. Wolper, who wanted to make a movie about Nat Turner based on William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967); because Styron's book emasculated the insurrectionist and distorted historical truths, Meriwether and Vantile Whitfield, founder of Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles (PASLA), formed the Black Anti-Defamation Association to protest the making of the film. Tremendous support came from the black community, including that of John Henrik Clarke, noted historian, who edited a volume of essays entitled William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968). As a result of these efforts, the motion picture was not made.

In the early 1970s, Meriwether and others formed Black Concern, a committee to protest South Africa's offering large sums of money to American black entertainers to break the boycott of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and perform in that country. Meriwether and John Henrik Clarke wrote and distributed "Black Americans Stay Out of South Africa," a pamphlet detailing the flagrant injustices against black South Africans. She carried her message to radio audiences and to the United Nations, receiving support from their Committee Against Apartheid, the United Council of Churches, and other national organizations. Black Concern was instrumental in persuading Muhammad Ali, then heavyweight boxing champion, to cancel a match in Johannesburg and in convincing other black entertainers to uphold the OAU's boycott.

The crisis over, Meriwether returned to her writing, publishing short stories and articles. From 1979 to 1985, she was a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York (and one semester, while on leave, an instructor at the University of Houston), teaching creative writing. During that time, she received a grant from the Mellon Foundation through Sarah Lawrence College to assist her in researching a Civil War novel, which required several trips to the Sea Islands, Charleston, and North Carolina.

Meriwether's "weakness" has been in taking time away from her writing to organize the community in political activities that she felt were of prime importance. While trying to write, she has actively protested the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, the invasions of Panama and Grenada, and the covert actions of the United States in Chile and Cuba. Meriwether, however, manages to stay committed to her life as an activist while staying focused on her writing. In 2000, she released a new novel, Shadow Dancing.


Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Hine, Darlene Clark, editor. "Meriwether, Louise." Facts On File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Literature. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1997. American Women's History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE42&iPin=AFEBW0386&SingleRecord=True (accessed February 14, 2016).

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