Her father was a physician, of whom she was the youngest of four children. Her mother died soon after her birth. In 1896, at age 16, Julia graduated from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, from which she received a master's degree a year later. She taught at the Forte Motte, South Carolina, school for a few years before she married William George Peterkin in 1903. He was a planter who owned Lang Syne, a 2,000-acre (8.1 km2) cotton plantation near Fort Motte.
Julia began writing short stories, inspired by the everyday life and management of the plantation.
She was audacious as well as gracious, an ambiguity attested to by Robeson (1995). Peterkin sent highly assertive letters to people she did not know and had never met, such as Carl Sandburg and H.L. Mencken, and included samples of her writing about the Gullah culture of coastal South Carolina. Essentially sequestered on the plantation, she invited Sandburg, Mencken and other prominent people to the plantation. Sandburg, who lived nearby in Flat Rock, North Carolina, made a visit. While Mencken did not visit, he nevertheless became Peterkin's literary agent in her early career, a possible testament to her persuasive letters. Eventually, Mencken led her to Alfred Knopf, who published her first book, Green Thursday, in 1924.
In addition to a number of subsequent novels, her short stories were published in magazines and newspaper throughout her career. She was one of very few white authors to specialize in the Negro experience and character. But her work was not always praised, and Pulitzer Prize–winning Scarlet Sister Mary was called obscene and banned at the public library in Gaffney, South Carolina. The Gaffney Ledger newspaper, however, serially published the complete book.
In addition to the controversy over the obscenity claim, there was another problem with Scarlet Sister Mary. Dr. Richard S. Burton, the chairperson of Pulitzer's fiction-literature jury, recommended that the first prize go to the novel Victim and Victor by Dr. John B. Oliver. His nomination was superseded by the School of Journalism's choice of Peterkin's book. Evidently in protest, Burton resigned from the jury.
1998, the Department of English and Creative Writing at her alma mater, Converse College, established The Julia Peterkin Award for poetry, open to everyone.
- Green Thursday: Stories, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1924.
- Black April, Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1927.
- Scarlet Sister Mary, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928, granted the Pulitzer Prize and dramatized on Broadway, 1930, with Ethel Barrymore
- Bright Skin, Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1932
- Roll, Jordan, Roll, New York, R.O. Ballou, 1933, with photographic studies of the Gullahs by Doris Ulmann
- A Plantation Christmas, Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1934
Julia Peterkin used Gullah dialect in many of her novels and stories. It is said[who?] that her use encouraged Zora Neale Hurston to use Negro dialect in her novels, contrary to the practice of the other writers in the Harlem Renaissance, some of whom objected in print to such usage. Hurston wrote that she had met Peterkin and would begin a correspondence, but no letters from either to the other have ever been found.
- 1925, O. Henry Award for Best Short Story, "Maum Lou"
- 1929, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Scarlet Sister Mary
- 1930, O. Henry Award for Best Short Story, "The Diamond Ring"
- "Burton Quits Jury on Pulitzer Award", The New York Times, May 17, 1929, p. 12.
- "Julia Peterkin Wins Ovation as Actress; Novelist's Debut in Title Role of 'Hedda Gabler' Draws Record Advance Sale in Columbia, S.C.", The New York Times, February 27, 1932, p. 22.
- "Julia Peterkin, Novelist, Was 80; Author of the Pulitzer Prize winning 'Scarlet Sister Mary' Dies", The New York Times, August 11, 1961, p. 23.
- Durham, Frank (1970). The Collected Short Stories of Julia Peterkin, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 0-87249-184-6
- Robeson, Elizabeth (November 1995). "The Ambiguity of Julia Peterkin", The Journal of Southern History, vol. LXI, no. 4, pp. 761–786.
- Dramatized audio version of The Merry-Go-Round (1921 short story by Peterkin)
- First Edition of Scarlet Sister Mary (1929 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
- Julia Peterkin at Find a Grave