Photo from Georgia Center for the Book
African American, Federal Writers’ Project, Literature
Dr. Frank Yerby wrote 33 popular historical romance novels that challenged white conceptions of Southern history and culture. He was the first African American to have one of his novels adapted into a commercial movie. Earlier in his career, he conducted fieldwork in the urban Black communities of Chicago as a participant in the Illinois Federal Writers Project.
Frank Garvin Yerby, was born in 1916 in Augusta, Georgia, the second of four children of Rufus Garvin Yerby, a hotel doorman of African and Seminole ancestry, and Wilhelmina Ethel Smythe Yerby, who was of Scots Irish heritage. After attending the noted Haines Institute as a child, Yerby graduated with a BA in English from Paine College in Augusta (1937) and earned an MA in English from Fisk University (1938). Upon graduation, Yerby began doctoral studies in education at University of Chicago, but never completed his degree.
While in the first year of his doctoral program in 1939, he worked as a fieldworker for the Negro Unit of the Illinois Federal Writers Project in Chicago led by Katherine Dunham. In this role, he conducted fieldwork with Black religious communities in this burgeoning mecca of the Great Migration. Some of this research is published in the Negro in Illinois (2013). After he left graduate school, he taught briefly at Florida A & M College in Tallahassee and Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Yerby launched his literary career while working as a technician for Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan and as an inspector for Ranger Aircraft in Jamaica, Queens, New York and. Although he had previously published poetry, Yerby first achieved literary recognition in 1944, when he received the O. Henry Memorial Award for his short story “Health Card,” which featured the racial inequities experienced by an African American veteran and his wife. However, most of Yerby’s literary recognition comes from his historical fiction, which featured white protagonists in the plantation South. His first novel, Foxes of Harrow, (1946) was adapted into a commercial film.
During his life, Yerby’s commercially successful work was dismissed by many literary critics as being devoid of significant message. Since his death, however, scholars began to reevaluate Yerby’s novels as subversive efforts to debunk plantation myths and illuminate power relationships for white readers in order to challenge Southern white audiences’ traditional worldviews of race relations.
In protest against US racial oppression, Yerby expatriated to France in 1952. He finally settled in Spain in 1955 and resided there the rest of his life. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Fisk University (1976) and Paine College (1977) and in 2006 was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
Among his most important works for folklore are:
“And Churches” and “What is Africa to Me?” in The Negro in Illinois. Ed. by Brian Dolinar (2013)
The Dahomean (1971)