By Penelope Green
The New York Times
NEW YORK — Though she began writing at age seven, Grace Edwards waited until she was 55 to publish her first novel. That book, “In the Shadow of the Peacock,” was a lush portrayal of Harlem during World War II, a girl’s coming-of-age story set against the race riots of the time.
It was a place holder for the six detective stories she would later write, mysteries set in Harlem starring a female cop turned sociologist and accidental sleuth named Mali Anderson, always with a backbeat of jazz. The first of these, “If I Should Die,” was published in 1997, when Edwards was 64.
She was 87 when she died Feb. 25 at Downstate Hospital in Brooklyn, her death receiving little notice at the time. She had dementia for three years, her daughter, Perri Edwards, said.
In the late 1960s, Grace Edwards and a friend ran an Afrocentric dress shop selling dashikis and stylish caftans of their own designs and those of others called Neferti, for the African queen (intentionally misspelling the name because another business had taken the correctly rendered one, Nefertiti).
By 1974, Edwards was a disability analyst in New York state’s social services department, having earned a bachelor’s degree from City College the year before and a Master of Fine Arts a few years later.
In her first novel, she wrote of the neighborhood she loved, and its vanished characters:
“The women and the old men gathered for comfort where folks were known to do the most talking: The women drifted into Tootsie’s ‘Twist ‘n’ Snap Beauty Saloon,’ where the air was thick with gossip and fried dixie peach. The men congregated in Bubba’s Barber Shop to listen to orators, smooth as water-washed pebbles, alter history with mile-long lies.”
The book took shape with help from the Harlem Writers Guild, which was founded in 1950 to support black authors. Edwards became the organization’s secretary in 1984, and then its executive director from 2007 to 2016. She taught creative writing at Marymount Manhattan and Hunter colleges, Hofstra University and the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center (which closed in 2010), among other places.
“There is both gentility at work here and a tougher, bluesier voice,” the novelist Robert Ward wrote in reviewing “In the Shadow of the Peacock” in The New York Times Book Review in 1988.
Grace Fredrica Smith was born on Jan. 3, 1933, at Harlem Hospital to William and Fredrica (Middleton) Smith. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father at the time was a laborer for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. She had five brothers.
Grace met Bernard Edwards, who went by the name Slade, when she was 16, while his band was playing at a bar in Harlem. (He was also an artist and had been in the merchant marine.) Grace paid a friend a quarter to introduce her. They married in 1955. Though they divorced in 1987, they remained friends until his death in 2011.