Ellen Tarry was born and grew up in Birmingham, Ala. She converted to Roman Catholicism while attending St. Francis de Sales School, a boarding school in Rock Castle, Va. In 1923, Tarry enrolled at the State Normal School (now Alabama State University) in Montgomery. Upon completion of her teacher training program, Tarry returned to Birmingham, where she taught from 1925 to 1929. During this time, Tarry began writing for The Birmingham Truth. She moved to New York City in 1929, hoping to earn enough money to attend journalism school at Columbia University. The Great Depression made this impossible, and she worked many jobs to support herself. In the mid-1930s, Tarry joined the Negro Writers' Guild where she became friends with Harlem Renaissance writers such as Claude McKay and James Weldon Johnson. In 1936, she began working as a researcher/writer for the Federal Writers Project in New York. For two years, she also received a scholarship to study at the Writers Laboratory in the Cooperative School for Student Teachers (now Bank Street College of Education).
In 1938, Tarry began volunteering at Friendship House, a Catholic interracial outreach center in Harlem. Her experiences there inspired her first two children's books, Janie Bell and Hezekiah Horton. Tarry began writing feature articles for the black newspaper Amsterdam News in 1942. Shortly after she started there, she was asked to co-found a Chicago branch of Friendship House. She returned to New York in 1943, working again briefly for the Amsterdam News before being recruited to open a USO club for black soldiers in Anniston, Ala. In Anniston, she was married to a soldier stationed locally, but the marriage didn't last. She returned to New York in 1944, where her daughter was born late that year. From 1945 to 1948, Tarry was the Harlem Area supervisor for the National Catholic Community Service. In 1951, she became the director of community relations for the St. Charles School and Community Center Fund. Later, she worked for New York City's Housing and Urban Development office. She published two more children's books (one co-authored by Marie Hall Ets), four biographies (including one of James Weldon Johnson) written for young adults, and her autobiography. Tarry died in New York in 2008.
Ellen Tarry's picture books portray black life in a positive and realistic way. Her young adult biographies reflect her Catholic faith as well as her black heritage. Tarry's autobiography, The Third Door, describes her experiences as an African American whose skin was light enough to pass for white but who chose to identify as black.
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Last updated on Dec 21, 2009.