Pickens, William, 1881-1954

Alternative names
Birth 1881-01-15
Death 1954-04-06

Biographical notes:

Author, educator. William Pickens was Dean of Morgan College in Baltimore, Md., 1918-1919; Field Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1920-1942; and employee of the United States Treasury Department, 1941-1951.

From the description of William Pickens papers, 1906-1954. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122608256

From the guide to the William Pickens papers, 1906-1954, (The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.)

Author, educator, official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1920-1942; employee of the United States Treasury Department, 1941-1951.

From the description of William Pickens papers (Additions), 1909-1950. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122465862

William Pickens was born in Anderson County, S.C. on January 15, 1881. When he was seven years of age, his parents moved to Arkansas, where he graduated from Union High School in Little Rock, in 1899, as the valedictorian of his class.

Following high school Pickens entered Talladega College in Alabama and finished the Bachelor of Arts course in 1902, after which he entered Yale University, where in 1904 he earned a B.A. degree in linguistics. At Yale, Pickens received the Phi Beta Kappa Key and was in the highest ranking group of his class.

Upon completion of his degree, Pickens began teaching foreign languages and other subjects at Talladega College. He spent ten years there and then went to Wiley University in Texas where he served as head of the departments of Greek and Sociology for one year. In 1915 Pickens accepted the position of Dean of Morgan College in Baltimore. He remained at Morgan for five years, serving as Vice-President in the last two years. Although his tenure as dean of Morgan College was brief, he would be known for many years after as “Dean Pickens.”

While pursuing his career as a college professor, Pickens also received the following degrees: a diploma from the British Esperanto Association, 1906; a Master of Arts degree from Fisk University, 1908; a doctorate in Literature from Selma University, 1915, and an L.L.D. from Wiley University, 1918.

In 1905 Pickens married Minnie Cooper McAlpine of Meridian, Mississippi, who had earned her B.A. degree from Tougaloo University. They subsequently had three children, William Jr., Harriet and Ruby.

In 1913 Pickens made his first of many trips abroad to attend conferences and deliver lectures in England, Scotland, Germany, Poland, Russia, Switzerland and Austria. An inveterate traveler throughout his life, he traveled through most of Europe, Central America, the West Indies and Canada.

It was also during this period that Pickens acquired a reputation as an author and lecturer. He wrote The Heir of Slaves, an autobiography; The New Negro, a collection of essays; The Vengeance of the Gods, short stories; Bursting Bonds, another autobiography; American Aesop, after-dinner stories, and other works. He was a well-known contributor to the press and leading periodicals, and was a contributing editor of the Associated Negro Press for twenty-five years.

Abandoning the field of education in 1920, Pickens became Field Secretary and then Director of the Branches for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Always intensely interested in the welfare and progress of black people, Pickens had been a member of the noted Niagara Movement, which antedated the NAACP. He remained with the NAACP officially until 1942. During his tenure he successfully used his organizing and oratorical skills to raise funds and increase membership.

While with the NAACP Pickens also served as a Leader in the Federal Forums Projects conducted by the U.S. Department of Interior during 1937 and 1939. In addition, under appointment by Governor Herbert H. Lehman, he served as a member of the Selective Service System on draft and appeal boards in New York City.

At the request of the Treasury Department of the United States, Pickens took a leave of absence from the NAACP in May 1941 and went to work for the Defense Savings Staff Section. He was designated Chief of the Interracial Section, the National Organization Division of the Treasury in 1942. At that time, he officially severed his employment with the NAACP and became the first black person affiliated with the Treasury Division in twenty-five years.

During World War II, Pickens led black bond buyers through eight successful drives - seven war loans, and one Victory loan. When the war ended, rebuffed by Walter White in his attempt to return to the NAACP, he continued with the Treasury Department selling to blacks the idea of thrift through government securities. His duties took him all over the United States, traveling from 15,000 to 40,000 miles a year for the ten years he was with the Treasury Department. He gained prominence as one of the nation's top war and savings bond salesmen.

After his retirement from the Treasury Department at age 70, in 1951, Pickens traveled extensively throughout the world, writing articles for various newspapers. He died aboard the S.S. Mauritania on April 6, 1954, off Kingston, Jamaica, while on a Caribbean cruise. At his wife's request, William Pickens was buried at sea.

From the guide to the William Pickens papers (Additions), 1909-1950, (The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.)


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  • College
  • Race relations
  • Civil rights--United States--Societies, etc
  • African Americans--Political activity
  • Scottsboro Trial, Scottsboro, Ala., 1931
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  • African Americans--History--1877-1964--Sources
  • Universities and colleges, Black
  • Young Men's Christian associations--United States
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  • Alabama (as recorded)
  • Cuba (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Alabama--Scottsboro (as recorded)
  • Alabama (as recorded)
  • Baltimore, Md (as recorded)
  • Cuba (as recorded)