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Roi Ottley

(1906—1960)


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James Weldon Johnson (1871—1938)

 

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(1906 –1960), foreign correspondent, journalist, and author. Roi Ottley was born in New York City and educated at St. Bonaventure College, the University of Michigan, and St. John's School of Law. He studied playwriting at Columbia University, article writing at the City College of New York, and Negro folk literature under James Weldon Johnson at New York University. However, at St. John's he decided writing would be his life's work. He began this career at the Amsterdam Star–News in Harlem, where he worked for seven years as, successively, a reporter, columnist, and editor. Following this period, he became a freelance writer for the following magazines: New York Times, Liberty, Mercury, Ebony, Common Ground, Travel, Colliers, The Nation, and New Republic. He became a foreign correspondent for Liberty, PM newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Overseas News Agency. Ottley was the first African American to be employed as a working war correspondent for a nationally known magazine and a major white daily newspaper. He later became a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and broadcasted reports for both the Columbia Broadcasting System and the British Broadcasting System. In 1943, he served as publicity director for the National CIO War Relief Committee.

Ottley reported on such events as the Normandy Invasion, the hanging of Mussolini, and the Arab–French conflict in Syria. He interviewed important Allied political leaders and such personalities as Pope Plus XI, Governor Talmadge of Georgia, and Samuel Green, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. At the Chicago Tribune, he wrote series on the migration of African Americans from the agricultural South to the industrial North and its impact, the voting trends among African Americans, and the war. Topics in the latter series included the plot to remove all African American soldiers from occupied Germany, the desire of the African American to fully participate in the war, the absence of race problems when African Americans were allowed full participation, and the stellar performance of the African American soldier. Additionally, he wrote articles on African American achievers in Chicago, such as Dr. Philip C. Williams, the first African American to be admitted to the Chicago Gynecological Society.

Based on his travels, observations, and interviews, Ottley wrote four books, contributed satirical short stories to Negro Digest, and at the time of his death was completing his first novel. His first book, New World A–Coming: Inside Black America (1944), presents the African American's history, problems, and hopes. It appeared a few weeks after a wave of race riots; this helped catapult it to best–seller status. According to Ottley, the way in which the African American is responded to will determine the way in which the world will heed America. It was published in Brazil and England as Inside Black America. He became the first African American to be published in the Houghton Mifflin Life–in–America series, was recognized for his contribution to interracial understanding by both the Chicago Defender and the Schomburg Library, and became the first African American journalist to receive a Rosenwald Fellowship. He won the Peabody Award for his radio dramatization New World A–Coming, a series designed to promote racial harmony. Following his overseas tour, he returned to the United States to work on his history of the African American's search for equality in America, Black Odyssey: The Story of the Negro in America (1948), which grew out of interviews and records in both America and Europe. This work, which details the origin of African American slavery and other historical occurrences, is marked by its fusion of individuals and events, an emphasis upon the human aspect of history without the omission of facts. His third book, No Green Pastures (1951), which was published in England in 1952, cautions the reader not to believe that European racial tolerance and lack of color prejudice are realities, and the African American not to consider Ottley's European treatment as typical. His final book, Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbott (1955), is the biography of Robert Sengstacke Abbott, a multifaceted and often contradictory individual, the founder and editor of the Chicago Defender. Abbott created a channel through which individuals could speak out on the African American's behalf; lived and wrote history; called for the destruction of American race prejudice; established the Bud Billiken page in the Defender, devoted to issues of interest to young people; loved his race; and is considered by many to have initiated the modern African American press.

From The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Literature.


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