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. Pickens, the son of freed slaves was born on January 15, 1881 in South Carolina but mostly raised in Arkansas.
He studied at multiple schools. He received bachelors 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; a master’s degree from Fisk University (1908); and a Litt.D from Selma University in 1915. He married the former Minnie Cooper McAlpin(e), and they had three children. Pickens was a Methodist. He was buried at sea while vacationing with his wife on the RMS Mauretania.
Pickens was fluent in and instructed several languages, including Latin, Greek, and German. 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), where he held the position of Field Secretary. He also served on the U.S. Treasury’s Defense Savings He wrote two autobiographies: The Heir of Slaves (1910/11) and Bursting Bonds (1923).
In the 1930s Pickens, as an NAACP official was involved in the Scottsboro Case and the campaign to support Ethiopia after its invasion by Italy. Pickens’s daughter Harriett was one of the first black Naval officers in World War II. Once charged with subversive activities by the House Committee on Un-American Activities because of his friendship with Socialist leader Norman Thomas and his work with the League for Industrial Democracy, Pickens by 1941 left the NAACP and became an employee of the U.S. Treasury Department. In 1946-1947, for example, he traveled across the United States in 1946-1947, urging the sale of U.S. Savings Bonds.
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.”
William Pickens died in 1954 aboard the RMS Mauretania while taking a pleasure cruise with his wife off the coast of South America.