The James Family

The James clan of Connecticut, an African- American family that rose from slavery, triumphed over racism, and produced a number of “firsts,” including shaping the life of bestselling writer Ann Petry.

Ann Petry 2The patriarch, Willis Samuel James, was a runaway slave, and his descendants overcame the obstacles of race, extreme poverty, and in the case of the women, a patriarchal society. He escaped through the underground network, settling in Connecticut. His children grew up in Hartford and lived in Old Saybrook and Wethersfield. Their story is at once emblematic of the pioneering, risk-taking spirit that has shaped America and illustrative of what sets this family apart. Their letters illuminate one family’s collective determination to struggle and survive against insurmountable odds, to overcome adversity, and to become part of a society that did not welcome them but came to accept their significant contributions.

Willis 1 Compressed

And they triumphed. Among them were an uncle, a “buffalo soldier” who, after his service in the Spanish-American war, begged Petry’s mother to send money so he could bribe a Georgia sheriff to escape a lynching; an aunt who went alone to Hawaii to care for the children of lepers at the turn of the twentieth century and met the last queen; Petry’s mother, who operated three businesses while raising a family; and an aunt who became the first African-American woman to obtain a pharmacy license from the state of Connecticut and operated a pharmacy for more than forty years. Ann Petry also trained as a pharmacist but instead created a different sort of alchemy through her compelling novels, short stories, and works for children.

James PharmacyThese parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles provided a mold for Petry’s life. Their story appears in Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters. A motion picture record will make their story available to a wider audience and will draw attention to a period in American life, between 1863 and 1915, that is not widely covered in history books, though it included an epidemic of lynchings, the takeover by the United States of a country whose leader wanted to maintain control, and the annexation of Hawaii. All of these incidents had an impact of the lives of the James family and helped them become who they were.