John Oliver Killens' politically charged novels earned this Macon native two Pulitzer Prize nominations, and his works of fiction and nonfiction have been translated into more than a dozen languages. An influential essayist, screenwriter and teacher, he co-founded the important Harlem Writers Guild and worked as a teacher and lecturer at many schools and universities, including Fisk, Howard, and Columbia.
Killens grew up hearing his great-grandmother's stories of her childhood under slavery and reading the writings of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes that his parents provided. He set out to become a lawyer and worked for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington D.C. from 1936-1942, but World War II military service interrupted his legal career. After serving with the Army in the South Pacific, Killens landed in New York City as a student, political organizer and newswriter. Introduced to the African American artistic community there, he helped organize the Harlem Writers Guild and wrote his first novel. Youngblood (1954) told the story of an African-American family's struggles in the fictional town of "Crossroads, Georgia" during the Jim Crow era of the 1920s, and it has been republished several times, most recently by the University of Georgia Press.
His novels And Then We Heard the Thunder and 'Sippi dramatized racism in the U.S. Army during World War II and the South during the voting rights struggles of the 1960s. Both And Then We Heard the Thunder and Killens's satirical novel about black class divisions, Cotillion, or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd, were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
A vice president of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and a board member of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, Killens was among a select group of North American writers noted in the monumental 1999 reference work Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.
Photo courtesy of the Carl Van Vechten collection and the Library of Congress.
The following titles may be found in the Hall of Fame Library:
Youngblood. New York: Dial Press, 1954.
Youngblood. London: Bodley Head, 1956.
And Then We Heard the Thunder. New York: Knopf, 1963.
And Then We Heard the Thunder. London: Jonathan Cape, 1964.
And Then We Heard the Thunder. New York: Pocket Books, 1964, c1962.
Black Man's Burden. New York: Trident Press, 1965.
Youngblood. New York: Trident Press; [distributed by Affiliated Publishers] 1966.
'Sippi. New York: Trident Press, 1967.
'Sippi. [Uncorrected Proofs] New York: Trident Press, 1967.
Slaves. [Typed Script] By John O. Killens, Screenplay by Herbert Biberman. New York: Theatre Guild Films, Inc., 1968.
"Black Writer and the Revolution." Arts in Society. 5, no. 3 Fall/Winter 1968. Madison: University of Wisconsin Extension Division.
"Run Like Hell and Holler Fire." American Dialog 5, no. 2 Winter 1968/1969. New York: Dialog Publications.
Esclaves. Not Published, 1969.
Slaves. New York: Pyramid Books, 1969.
The Trial Record of Denmark Vesey. Introd. by John Oliver Killens. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.
The Cotillion; or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd. New York: Trident Press, 1971.
Great Gittin' Up Morning: Biography of Denmark Vesey. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.
A Man Ain't Nothin' but a Man: The Adventures of John Henry. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.
Black Man in the New China. Los Angeles: US-China Peoples Friendship Association, 1976.
Youngblood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.
And Then We Heard the Thunder. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1983.
'Sippi. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, c1998.
Great Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1989.
Youngblood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.
The Cotillion; or, One Good Bull is Half the Herd. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press; [distributed by Consortium Book Sales & Distribution] 2002.
Born: January 14, 1916
Died: October 27, 1987