William Pickens

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William Pickens
William Pickens

(1881-01-15)January 15, 1881
DiedApril 6, 1954(1954-04-06) (aged 73)
Occupationorator, educator, journalist, essayist

William Pickens (15 January 1881 – 6 April 1954) was an African-American orator, educator, journalist, and essayist. He wrote two autobiographies, first The Heir of Slaves, in 1911 and second Bursting Bonds in 1923, in which he mentioned race- motivated attacks on African Americans. both in the urban riots of 1919 and by lynching in 1921.[1]


Pickens, the son of freed slaves was born on January 15, 1881 in South Carolina but mostly raised in Arkansas.[2]

He studied at multiple schools. He received bachelor's degrees from Talladega College (1902) and Yale University (1904), where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and awarded the Henry James Ten Eyek Prize;[2] a master's degree from Fisk University (1908); and a Litt.D from Selma University in 1915.[1] He married the former Minnie Cooper McAlpin(e), and they had three children.[1][2] Pickens was a Methodist.[1] He was buried at sea while vacationing with his wife on the RMS Mauretania.[2]


Educational career[edit]

Pickens was fluent in and instructed several languages, including Latin, Greek, German, and Esperanto. He taught at his first alma mater, Talladega College, then at Wiley College. He was also a professor of sociology and a college dean at Morgan State College.


Pickens was also an active and vocal member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Pickens was initially considered for the position of field secretary by the association, but instead it was given to James Weldon Johnson in December 1916. On January 12, 1920, Pickens was given the opportunity for the position of assistant field secretary by the NAACP executive secretary, John R. Shillady. Pickens finished teaching for the academic year at Morgan College, while concurrently accepting the position, which provided a $3,000 salary. He also served as a director of branches, 1920 – 1940.[3]

January 15, 1923, Pickens joined the eight people group and sent the “ Garvey Must Go” letter to the U. S. August, 1927, Pickens wrote a letter to the New Republic that called for Garvey’s release from prison.

Pickens once said, “Color had been made the mark of enslavement and was taken to be also the mark of inferiority; for prejudice does not reason, or it would not be prejudice… If prejudice could reason, it would dispel itself.”[4]

U.S. Treasury[edit]

Pickens was the director of the interracial section of the Treasury Department’s Saving Bonds Division from 1941 to 1950[5] where he was a travelling spokesperson for investing in WWII war bonds. In this role, he is said to have had more direct contact with the Negro masses than any other African American leaders in his time,[5] but also spoke to European-American and mixed audiences.[6]


His address "Misrule in Hayti" won him the Ten Eyck Prize for oratory, but he would renounce its ideas ten years later. The address led to a conflict between him, Monroe Trotter, and Booker T. Washington.[3]

On February 1, 1943, Pickens was one of the 39 men named by Martin Dies as affiliates of "Communist front organizations" and urged Congress to refuse "to appropriate money for their salaries."[7] An amendment was quickly offered to the Treasury and Post Office Appropriations Bill in the House Appropriations Committee to remove funding for the salary of these 39 government employees. After it was discovered that Pickens was the only employee that would be covered by the appropriations bill, the initial amendment failed and a separate action proceeded to withhold solely the salary of Pickens. A few days later it became known that Pickens was the only black person in the list of 39; the appearance of racism along with a public push to give the named men a "day in court" persuaded the committee to instead create a sub-committee (the Kerr Committee) to investigate the Dies allegations.[8] Pickens wrote to and met with people investigating the allegations.[9] The Kerr committee did not name Pickens as being subversive or unfit.[8]


  • Abraham Lincoln, Man and Statesman, 1909
  • The Heir of Slaves, 1910/11
  • Frederick Douglass and the Spirit of Freedom, 1912
  • Fifty Years of Emancipation, 1913
  • The Ultimate Effect of Segregation and Discrimination, 1915
  • The New Negro: His Political, Civil and Mental Status, and Related Essays, 1916
  • The Kind of Democracy the Negro Expects, 1919
  • The Vengeance of the Gods and Three Other Stories of the Real American Color Line, 1922
  • Bursting Bonds, Boston: Jordan & More Press, 1923
  • American Aesop: Negro and Other Humor, 1926.


  1. ^ a b c d Dumain, Ralph. William Pickens (1881-1954) at Who’s Who in Colored America
  2. ^ a b c d Okocha, Victor. Pickens, William (1881-1954) at blackpast.org,
  3. ^ a b Avery, Sheldon. Up From Washington:William Pickens and the Negro Struggle for Equality, 1900-1954 (illustrated ed.). University of Delaware Press, 1989. pp. 9, 10, 16, 56. ISBN 0874133610. Retrieved 25 May 2016.
  4. ^ "Pickens, William (1881-1954)". BlackPast.org.
  5. ^ a b Avery, Sheldon (1989). William Pickens and the Negro Struggle for Equality. University of Delaware Press. pp. 10–15.
  6. ^ Boardman, H (1941-08-02). "William Pickens, Spokesman for Cause". The Carolina Times. 22 (33). Associated Negro Press. p. 2. Retrieved 2016-12-05.
  7. ^ "United States v. Lovett". Justia. 1946-06-03. Retrieved 2016-12-05.
  8. ^ a b Cushman, Robert E. (1943). "The Purge of Federal Employees Accused of Disloyalty". Public Administration Review. 3 (4): 297–316. doi:10.2307/972311. JSTOR 972311.
  9. ^ "William Pickens FBI file". archive.org. Retrieved 2016-12-05.

Further reading[edit]

  • Brewer, William M. The Journal of Negro History 39:3 (July 1954): 242-244.
  • Avery, Sheldon. Up from Washington: William Pickens and the Negro Struggle for Equality, University of Delaware Press, 1989.

External links[edit]