Sandra Headen wins inaugural Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize

Sandra Headen

Sandra Headen wins inaugural Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize
March 14
00:00 2019

RALEIGH—The short story “Papa’s Gifts” by Raleigh writer Sandra Headen has won the first-ever Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize.

Headen will receive $1,000, and The Carolina Quarterly will consider “Papa’s Gifts” for publication.

This award was initiated by Cedric Brown, a Winston-Salem native and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to honor the best in short prose by African-American writers in North Carolina.

Final judge Rion Amilcar Scott selected “Papa’s Gifts” from among 12 finalists for the inaugural prize.

“‘Papa’s Gifts’ is the type of story that seems to exist in a hazy limbo, like something overheard between sleep and wake until the ending startles you to attention,” Scott said about Headen’s entry. “Papa of the title will stay with me for his ordinary strict father menace that morphs into something more chilling by the end.”

Following a career in teaching and research at universities in Chicago and Chapel Hill, Headen became an independent consultant and began writing historical fiction. Her debut novel, “Warrior on the Mound” (originally titled “Cato’s Last Home Run”) won the On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.

Scott also selected “May Day Miracle,” a memoir excerpt by Charlotte’s Barbara Johnson, for Honorable Mention.

“‘May Day Miracle’ gives us a simple but heroic quest to root for. Seeking a fresh outfit for a May Day ceremony becomes a quest for dignity despite the indignities of rural poverty,” Scott said. “When the narrator’s heart breaks, the reader’s does, too, and when she triumphs, it washes over the reader and becomes our triumph as well.”

Barbara Johnson was born to a sharecropping family in Leasburg and graduated from Bennett College. Her work has been performed at the Matthews Playhouse, Queens University of Charlotte, and the Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius.

Both Headen and Johnson are members of the North Carolina Writers’ Network (NCWN).

The Jacobs/Jones contest, sponsored by the NCWN and administered by the Creative Writing Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, is open to any African-American writer whose primary residence is in North Carolina. Entries may be fiction or creative nonfiction, but must not have been published before (including on any website, blog, or social media), and must be no more than 3,000 words.

“The literary award was borne out of my frustration with being unable to readily find much fiction or creative nonfiction that conveys the rich and varied existence of black North Carolinians,” Brown said. “I wanted to incentivize the development of written works while also encouraging black writers to capture our lives through storytelling.”

The full competition guidelines can be found at

The Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize honors the nineteenth-century writers Harriet Jacobs and Thomas H. Jones. Jacobs was born in 1813 near Edenton, escaping to Philadelphia in 1842, after hiding for seven years in a crawl space above her grandmother’s ceiling. She published her autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” under a pseudonym in 1861. Jacobs died in 1897 and was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 1997.

Jones was born into slavery near Wilmington in 1806. Able to purchase the freedom of his wife and all but one of his children, he followed them north in 1849 by stowing away on a brig to New York. In the northeast and in Canada, he spoke as a preacher and abolitionist, writing his memoir, “The Experience of Thomas Jones,” in 1854, as a way to raise funds to buy his eldest child’s freedom.

The non-profit North Carolina Writers’ Network is the state’s oldest and largest literary arts services organization devoted to all writers at all stages of development. For additional information, visit

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