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William Pickens Posted In: Profiles

William Pickens graduated from Yale College with a B.A. in Classics in 1904. Pickens was a renowned orator, scholar, journalist, and essayist, who called for equal rights to education, a more just and fair distribution of wealth, and equal political and private opportunity for men and women.

Pickens College Shield

The Pickens shield illustrates William Pickens’ work as an essayist, made possible by his mother’s work as a washerwoman. Two pen nibs balancing each other reference his efforts towards racial equality, while also representing his work as a writer.

Pickens was born on January 15, 1881 in South Carolina to two former slaves, Jacob and Fannie Pickens.  Pickens’ father worked as a tenant farmer, and his mother worked as a cook and washerwoman. Pickens’ family struggled with dire poverty amid severe inequality.  Pickens was the sixth of ten children, and his parents, and despite their poverty, sought first and foremost to create a life of opportunity for their children. Pickens wrote in his autobiography The Heir of Slaves, “The motives that carried my mother and father … were more than good; they were sacred. It was a consideration for the future of their children.” Searching for the opportunity to procure real education for their children, and often escaping circumstances akin to slavery, Pickens wrote that his family moved no fewer than twenty times before he turned eighteen.

In 1891, the family moved once again, this time to Argenta, Arkansas. There, Pickens studied in a school for African Americans, receiving his first taste of real education; he wrote, “I was deeply in love with school and study.” Yet one thing remained constant throughout his school days, through even his years at Yale: Pickens always worked, sometimes long hours at physically demanding jobs, in the hours before and after school and in the summer to pay for his board, fees, and books.

William PickensFour years after he began school, Pickens’ mother died “of overwork and consequent broken health [at the age of about 45]. She had been determined to keep her children in school and had worked from early morning till late at night to that end.”

After finishing grammar school, he gained entrance into a high school that charged fees for non-residents, and he continued to work to pay for school. In 1899, he graduated valedictorian of his class.

He went on to earn his first B.A. from Talladega College in 1902, and received a second B.A. from Yale University in 1904 with a degree in Classics.

Pickens wrote that his years at Yale were “two of the most interesting and successful years of all my educational career.” When he attended Yale, black students represented less than one percent of the student population. He was the second Black American student at Yale to be elected to the honor society, Phi Beta Kappa, and the first black student to win the prestigious Henry James Ten Eyck prize for oratory. While greatly encouraged by his successes, he wrote that, “It would seem that the whole world was a little too much surprised.”William Pickens 3 - Lecture Poster

In 1908, he received an M.A. from Fisk University and spent the next ten years working in higher education. From 1920 to 1942, he served as the field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He advocated for civil rights in more than one hundred newspapers across the country, and was a contributing editor for the Associated Negro Press for twenty-one years. He began work for the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 1942 and retired in 1950. Pickens passed away in 1954 and was survived by his wife, Minnie Cooper McAlpine (“the most helpful and the most enduring good fortune of all my life”) and three children (“three of the brightest and best joys that high heaven lends to earth, William, Jr., Hattie Ida and Ruby Annie”).

He concluded his autobiography with the sentence, “I have been impressed, not that every single thought and deed in the world is good, but that the resultant line of humanity’s movement is in the direction of righteousness, and that human life and the world are on the whole good things.”


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