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William Pickens, 1881-1954
The Heir of Slaves: An Autobiography
Boston: The Pilgrim Press, 1911.


William Pickens was born in Anderson County, South Carolina in 1881 to parents who were liberated slaves and tenant farmers. When Pickens was eight years old, the family moved to Arkansas. There, he graduated first in his high school class in 1899. After three years at Talladega College, he went to Yale in 1902 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He graduated with a degree in classics in 1904 and returned to Talladega College as a professor. Pickens was involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from its inception in 1910, and his leadership helped ensure its growth over the next thirty years, particularly in southern states. He served as assistant field secretary, associate field secretary and director of branches for the NAACP under James Weldon Johnson. Pickens was also a contributing editor for the Associated Negro Press and helped to expand the NAACP through advertisements and publicity in newspapers and periodicals. Known primarily as a writer, Pickens wrote several important essays and books regarding the condition of African American life in America. He became an important voice in advancing the views of W.E.B. Dubois and speaking against the accomodationist ideas of Booker T. Washington.

In 1911, Pickens published the first edition of his autobiography, The Heir of Slaves. In it, he recounts the experiences that led him into public life and the importance of his education.The narrative discusses his family, the various teachers and mentors who helped guide him, and the incidents and methods by which he accomplished so much. The Heir of Slaves, while stressing his concern for elevating African American status, does not directly contradict Booker T. Washington's philosophy of race relations.

Pickens's later works increasingly demanded the rights of full citizenship for African Americans. Bursting Bonds (1923), the second edition of his autobiography, clearly demonstrates this development by the inclusion of five new chapters on racial tensions. Scholar William L. Andrews explains that in Bursting Bonds, "Pickens exemplifies in himself a model of what the New Negro of the 1920s stood for and wrote about. In its candor about the contemporary color line and sensitivity to its author's transition from conservative to militant, Bursting Bonds marks a turning point in the evolution of African American autobiography away from the deferential posture of Up From Slavery and toward the confrontational rhetoric of Black Boy (1945)."

Work Consulted: Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, eds., The Oxford Companion to African American Literature , New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Harris Henderson

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