|Born||Frank Garvin Yerby
September 5, 1916
|Died||November 29, 1991
Frank Yerby (September 5, 1916 – November 29, 1991) was an American writer, best known for his 1946 historical novel The Foxes of Harrow.
Frank Garvin Yerby was born in Augusta, Georgia, on September 5, 1916, the second of four children of Rufus Garvin Yerby (1886-1961) and Wilhelmina Ethel Yerby (née Smythe) (1888-1960). Rufus, a hotel doorman, was part African American, part Seminole; Wilhelmina ("Willie") was Scots-Irish. Yerby would later refer to himself as "a young man whose list of ancestors read like a mini-United Nations." As a child, Yerby attended Augusta's Haines Institute, a private school for African Americans. In 1937, he graduated from Paine College with a B.A. in English, and earned his M.A. from Fisk University in 1938. In 1939, he began courses for his doctorate in education at the University of Chicago, but left school to teach.
Yerby was originally noted for writing romance novels set in the antebellum South. In mid-century, Yerby began writing a series of best-selling historical novels ranging from the Athens of Pericles to Europe in the Dark Ages. Yerby took considerable pains in research and often endnoted his historical works. In all, he wrote 33 novels. In 1946, he published The Foxes of Harrow, a southern historical romance, which became the first novel by an African-American to sell more than a million copies. In this work he faithfully reproduced many of the genre's most familiar features, with the notable exception of his representation of African-American characters, who bore little resemblance to the "happy darkies" that appeared in such well-known works as Gone With the Wind (1936). That same year he also became the first African-American to have a book purchased for screen adaptation by a Hollywood studio, when 20th Century Fox optioned Foxes. Ultimately, the book became a 1947 Oscar-nominated film of the same name starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O'Hara.
In some quarters, Yerby is best known for his masterpiece, Dahomean (1971). The novel, which focuses on the life of an enslaved African chief's son who is transported to America, serves as the culmination of Yerby's efforts toward incorporating racial themes into his works. Prior to that, Yerby was often criticized by blacks for the lack of focus on or stereotypical treatment of African-American characters in his books.
In 2012, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an article featuring an at-risk child whose life was turned around by reading Yerby books that one of his teachers was secretly providing to him.
Later years and death
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Yerby left the United States in 1955, in protest against racial discrimination, and moved to Spain (then under the Franco regime), where he remained for the rest of his life. Yerby died from congestive heart failure in Madrid and was interred there in the Cementerio de la Almudena.
In 2006, Yerby was posthumously inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
In 2013, the Augusta Literary Festival created an award to honor Frank Yerby. This award is given to three fiction authors from a submission pool.
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- Jarrett, Gene Andrew (2007). Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature. University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Lowe, J. Subversive Romanticism, Haitian Specters, in Yerby’s The Golden Hawk'. allacademic.com. (unpublished manuscript of conference paper)
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- Williams, John A. (September 1963). "Negro In Literature Today". Ebony.