Frank Garvin Yerby, the son of Rufus Gavin, a black, half-Indian postal clerk, and his Scotch-Irish wife, Wilhelmina Smythe Yerby, was born and reared in Augusta, Georgia. After high school Yerby earned an A.B. from Paine College in 1937, and an M.A. from Fisk one year later; in 1939 he began graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Financial problems forced Yerby out of graduate school, and he, along with Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Langston Hughes, briefly worked for the Federal Writers’ Project in the Chicago area.
That same year, in 1939, Yerby secured a position as an English instructor with Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee. During 1940 to 1941 he taught English at Southern University and at A & M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 1941 he married Flora Helen Claire Williams and left the teaching profession, claiming that colleges had a “stifling” atmosphere and were “Uncle Tom factories.” He and his wife, with whom he eventually had one son and three daughters, moved to Dearborn, Michigan, where Yerby worked as a lab technician with Ford Motor Company until 1944. During 1944 to 1945 he was chief inspector at Magnaflux with Ranger (Fairchild) Aircraft in Jamaica, New York.
In 1944 Yerby published the short story “Health Card” in Harper’s and was awarded the O. Henry Memorial Award for “best first short story.” It was a bitter story about racial injustice, the last fiction he would publish with such a theme until The Dahomean, a novel set in nineteenth century black Africa. In 1945 Yerby became a full-time writer. One year later his The Foxes of Harrow became a best-seller.
From 1946 through 1964 Yerby published one book a year. Of the first ten, all but one were among the top ten best-sellers of the year, which put Yerby in the elite list of top commercial American novelists. Novels that sell well on the commercial market do not generally receive critical...
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