Surrounded by centuries of family history, William Pickens III, aka “Bill,” smiles with pride as he speaks about his family heritage.
“My ancestors were among the first people to come to the New World. They sailed from England and arrived in Oyster Bay in 1670. My great grandfather, five times removed, was appointed Mayor of Pennsylvania by William Penn in 1691 and remained mayor for 10 years. They had jobs, education, values, and virtues. They lived through the Boston Massacre, the Stamp Act, the Intolerable Act, and the first and second Continental Congresses. They were here before George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. They were here for the signing of the Declaration of Independence. They were counted in the first Census conducted by George Washington in 1790,” said Pickens.
His grandfather, William Pickens, Sr. was born in 1881 to slave parents. “My grandfather was a brilliant man. After he was freed, he went on to be a straight A student at Yale. A true scholar, he had a knack for languages and spoke Latin, German, Greek, Spanish, French, Italian, and Esperanto [an auxiliary international language].”
“He was also a great orator. When he graduated in 1904, he was the first African American to be awarded a certificate from the Esperanto Society. He was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. Can you imagine?” Pickens said with a smile, “That was 114 years ago!”
Thanks to Patricia, Pickens’s late wife, a portrait of his grandfather is hanging on the wall in the Chairman’s office in the Arts and Sciences Department of Yale. “It’s funny,” he said. “You walk into the university and all you see are pictures of all these white guys on the walls and then you see my grandfather. I’m sure it causes a pause,” he said with a laugh.
In 1975, Pickens created the William Pickens Prize, which is a cash prize awarded to the top senior essayist from the Department of African American Studies. In 2002, Pickens, Sr. was honored by Yale University.
With obvious pride, Pickens revealed that his grandfather was co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. At just 28 years old, he became a member of the committee. “He was an activist whose goal was to make America better. He believed in the Constitution. Remember, he came from slavery and believed that the Constitution was for everyone. It didn’t have a race tied to it. It was a document that was meant to unite.”
Pickens, Sr. met his future wife, Minnie McAlpine, in South Carolina. She was also a top scholar and in 1902, she became one of the first 1000 African Americans in the United States to graduate college. “They had three children who were all scholars and all college graduates. My aunt, Harriet Ida Pickens, went to Smith College and was the first female African American Naval officer. She was encouraged by Eleanor Roosevelt.”
As for Bill’s father and mother, he says, “They were actually introduced to each other by my father’s roommate, Langston Hughes. My mother was a beauty. Langston wrote a poem just for her in 1925. It was called ‘Fairies.’”
Although the Pickens family lived in Laurelton, Queens, Bill remembers visiting Sag Harbor in the summer for decades before finally moving to the area permanently in 2004. “I think I was 10 years old the first time I came here,” he recalls fondly. “There weren’t a lot of homes here at the time. It was all woods. A lot of the streets around here are named by who visited here in the past. Paul Robeson, the singer and civil rights activist, came here and there’s a street named after him.”
When it was Bill’s time to continue the Pickens family legacy, he enrolled in the University of Vermont and majored in history and political science. He was the first African American student to be elected president of the student body. He was also elected president of the Honor Society and president of the fraternity Tau Epsilon Phi.
In 1958, he joined the Air Force as a Second Lieutenant. Pickens’s position as Personnel Officer in the Air Force sent him across the world to Japan. His superior officer told him to learn Japanese so that he could handle the affairs that needed attention. He picked up the language easily and enjoyed the culture and its art. Being an artist himself, he was captivated with the beauty of the traditional Japanese dolls that would be displayed during the Doll Festivals. He began to collect dolls, acquiring 70 of them, which are on display at the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University.
Pickens’s father passed away while he was in Japan. Upon his return, he worked in several different executive positions over the course of time, which included Western Electric, Booz Allen Hamilton, Marine Midland Bank, and Phillip Morris before started his own business, Bill Pickens Associates. It didn’t take long before entrepreneur Ryoichi Sasakawa approached him, asking him to become an advisor to the U.S. Japanese Foundation.
It also didn’t take long for Pickens to realize his grandfather’s legacy, as he became a member of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, bringing peace keeping missions to Northern Ireland and South America. Pickens has also served as the Director of the Executive committee of the NAACP, the organization co-founded by his grandfather in 1909.
In 1962, while summering in Sag Harbor, Bill met his wife, Patricia. They married in 1964 and had three children, Pamela Alison Pickens, William Pickens IV, and John Montier Pickens. Patricia was a teacher and school guidance counselor and well liked in the community. Bill and Patricia were married 51 years; she lost her battle to cancer in 2015. “Somehow you get through life,” said Pickens.
Pickens is still able to revel in the friends that he has made, the peace that he has helped build in countries around the world, and the assurance that his own children know their legacy and carry its knowledge with pride. While his ancestors were among those who helped shape the New World, Pickens has certainly made his own lasting marks with his caring, compassion, and world-wide message of peace.