Beloved Sag Harbor resident and important activist and community figure William “Bill” Pickens III died on Monday, September 27 following a heart attack two days earlier. It was his 85th birthday, and he passed peacefully, friends say.
Always described as a true gentleman, and gentle man, who was known for dressing in elegant suits and hats, Pickens was a staunch advocate and spokesman for Sag Harbor’s Black community in the Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah Subdivisions (SANS) where he lived, and he did much work to preserve its character and history.
The proud grandson of essayist William Pickens Sr., a child of freed slaves who went on to earn Phi Beta Kappa distinction at Yale and be among the first organizers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Pickens had advocacy and activism in his blood.
Thanks to this lineage and his own good works, Pickens lived an extremely blessed and colorful life, which allowed him to meet a wide range of cultural icons, including Jackie Robinson, Lena Horne, President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Langston Hughes (who introduced his parents to each other), among other luminaries.
Pickens grew up in Laurelton, Queens and visited Sag Harbor during the summer for decades before finally settling in the historic whaling village full-time in 2004.
He attended the University of Vermont where he majored in history and political science, and became 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 2019, he gifted his alma mater with collection of significant and rare books on African American history, literature, civil rights and Black life in America, including inscribed volumes passed down from his father and grandfather with handwritten words from Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and others.
Pickens joined the Air Force as a Second Lieutenant in 1958, which took him to Japan, where quickly learned the language and began collecting Japanese dolls—his collection of more than 70 is now on display at the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University. After his military service, Pickens worked as an executive for Western Electric, Booz Allen Hamilton
Marine Midland Bank and Philip Morris, and then launched his own consulting firm, Bill Pickens Associates, in 1979. He also served on the board of multiple nonprofit organizations, was founding chair of the Paul Robeson Foundation and, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, was the Director of the Executive committee of the NAACP.
In 1975, Pickens created the William Pickens Prize, a cash award for the top senior essayist from Yale’s Department of African American Studies, in honor of his grandfather, whose portrait hangs in the Chairman’s office in the university’s Arts and Sciences Department. “It’s funny. 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 told The Independent with a laugh in 2018.
He met his wife Patricia, a teacher and school guidance counselor, while summering in Sag Harbor in 1962 and married her in 1964. They had three children, Pamela Alison Pickens, William Pickens IV and John Montier Pickens, who he leaves behind, along with his grandchildren. Patricia predeceased Pickens after 51 years of marriage when she died of cancer in 2015.
One of Pickens’ friends, artist and fellow Sag Harbor community advocate April Gornik, shared a story this week about a friend of hers who admitted not knowing Pickens for his illustrious family or his advocacy, but instead recognized him only for serving groceries to her and her husband at the Sag Harbor Food Pantry. “That’s got to be some above-and-beyond definition of a mensch,” Gornik wrote, describing a sharp-witted man full of grace and “thin elegance,” who seemed to know everyone.