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Four Generations: The Historical Footprints of the Pickens Family

Originally Posted: August 15, 2007

R. B. Stuart

The Pickens Family of Sag Harbor: William IV, Patricia, William III, Pamela, and John Pickens.

It's not everyday your family is honored by the Sag Harbor Historical Museum, but that's just what they'll be doing the month of August. They are honoring one of their own - the Pickens family, who have been in the area for four generations. "It's a great thrill that we've been singled out and are being honored. It's quite pleasing," says the 72 year-old patriarch William Pickens III.

Their attachment to the area began with William Pickens, Sr. who was born in Alabama on January 15, 1881 to illiterate slave parents. He would change the course of the Pickens family through passion, intelligence, and education. A brilliant scholar, Pickens Sr. graduated Yale, Phi Beta Capa and Suma Cum Lade 103 years ago. The 1904 graduate was a linguist and spoke six languages, and was the first African American to be given a certificate from the British Esperanto Society. "He got straight A's at Yale," recalls his grandson William Pickens III of Sag Harbor. Because of his wife of 43 years, Patricia, his grandfather's portrait hangs on the wall in the Chairman's office at Yale. His noble face looming overhead, spirited eyes fixed on conviction. "When you walk into Yale you see all these white guys on the walls...then you see my grandfather," Pickens says with pride and a dash of humor.

In 1909, Pickens Sr. was invited to serve as a co-organizer of the NAACP, which will be celebrating their 100-year anniversary in two years. "My grandfather, considered one of the founders, was just 28 years-old when he was asked to sit on their 100 person committee. He was not an ivory tower intellectual, he was an activist. He spent as much time in the street as in the libraries. He mixed both worlds equitably," said Pickens of his rich paternal history. His grandfathers' motto, "Let's make America better - not bitter" would set the trail for another passionate advocate, who would be born in 1929 on the same day, Martin Luther King Jr. His words so powerful he would be slain for his beliefs at the age of 39.

With Pickens grandfather at the forefront of this legendary organization it meant that, "He was a stalwart in defending our rights and advancing them. Using our Constitution and making it work. The Constitution was for everyone not just for one race...it was a uniting document." In 2002, Pickens Sr. was honored by Yale for his contributions at the legendary university. And 33 years ago, to honor his late grandfather, he formed the William Pickens Prize. The prize is given to the top senior essayist of The Department of African American Studies. Thus far over 40 prizes have been won.

His grandfather and grandmother, Minnie McAlpine, laid the groundwork for the next generation of gifted scholars as they were both in the vanguard and both brilliant students. His grandmother, a top scholar, was one of the first 1,000 black Americans throughout the United States to graduate college in 1902. "She was from Mississippi and they happened to meet in South Carolina, and together they made three incredibly smart babies, all college graduates. It was quite a hill to climb," Pickens III admitted of having to follow in his fathers and grandfathers collegiate footsteps, also rearing three children and having a kinship with Sag Harbor.

"This area was our anchor. My family had been coming to Sag Harbor for many decades. I remember being just 10 years old when I first visited here," he said of his roots in the area. The family moved there full time in 2004 from Queens.

His family always attended New England colleges, and when it was time, William Pickens III chose the University of Vermont where the history major would graduate with honors in 1958. Then Pickens III entered the military and served as a First Lieutenant in the Air Force for three years, post war Japan where he learnd Japanese and earned a Black Belt in Karate. "I was excited to be in Japan," Pickens recalled of his time oversees. "My Colonel instructed me to go out and learn how to talk to these folks. So I learned their language, and it helped that I could speak to our employees." His language skills and experience in the Orient came full circle 20 years later in 1980 when he helped found the United States Japan Foundation.

After his stint in the Air Force, Pickens III returned to the U. S. and joined the Bell System, where he would eventually become Department Chief. He moved onto the worldwide consulting firm, Booz, Allen & Hamilton, where he was an associate, one step away from being a partner. His position as Vice President at Marine Midland Bank would carry him across the pond to Japan, South Africa, Morocco, and England. Then onto Phillip Morris as the Director of Personnel which would pave the way for his own company, Bill Pickens Associates, an international consulting and executive search firm that he started in 1979.

But it would be his Peace Keeping missions as a member of the Board of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, leading delegations to South Africa and Northern Ireland, which would have the most impact on his ability to make a difference. Like his grandfather, bringing awareness, understanding and peace to other races - as his own family had faced racial conflict with extreme oppression as slaves. Pickens inherited the gift of mediation, empathy, and resolve.

A year and a half after Nelson Mandela was released in 1992, Pickens arrived in South Africa. "The Governor of Cape Town Province didn't know I was African American. So when he saw me carrying bags and a briefcase he thought I was a baggage carrier, then they told him I was the leader of the delegation," Pickens III recollected with amusement. Once he was able to break the invisible barrier, they invited him to discuss his ideas on how to resolve the conflict. "It showed their willingness in the first step to change."

In 1999 Gerry Adams, a member of Parliament, invited him to bring his message to Northern Ireland. "I insisted they stop the war and violence and find a better way to live." Pickens III told Adams to go to South Africa and see how they were doing it. They were finally able to sit down and legislate across the table without the use of bombs and fighting. "In both instances it gave me more confidence to show them the American way of life. Not to impose our will, just give them another way. They did, and I'm proud of that," Pickens conceded. After his successful dialogue with two other countries Pickens III, with his grandfathers spirit of equality, acceptance, and tolerance born into him, had been able to expand the message his grandfather brought to the NAACP nearly a century ago. Pickens III served as the Director of the Executive Committee, and remains a lifetime member.

In 1996 Pickens III was also the founding President and Trustee of the Paul Robeson Foundation. Robeson was a Valedictorian at Rutgers, and all American football player, "A scholar athlete of unique proportions."

Pickens III served as a President's Associate of Duke University and is a Trustee and former Co-Chair of Anthony Drexel Duke's Boys & Girls Harbor that for 50 years has helped educate underprivileged children. Pickens III considers this to be his proudest achievement. "I spent two thirds of my life there. It began as a large summer camp in East Hampton with a small office in Manhattan. Now there's a large office in the city and no summer camp. We're bringing it [the camp] back though," he explained. "Anthony Duke is one of America's greatest national treasures for what he's done." Duke, the heir to Duke University, created the year round educational institution based in Manhattan. "It's the best education to give these young people, so that they can become fine human beings and go out into this world and be successful. And that's how you spread democracy," Pickens III said of his 35 year relationship with Duke and the school.

With Pickens III endless contributions and tireless support, as Sag Harbor residents and theatre-goers, Pickens III has helped raise significant funds for The Bay Street Theater. "I love the theatre and participated in shows as a singer in my younger years. So it's a natural thing for me to help the theatre. Mainly, we're just happy to be alive and enjoying Sag Harbor."

To learn more about this remarkable family stop by the The Sag Harbor Historical Museum on Hamptons Street. The museum is open weekends from 2:00 - 5:00 PM until Labor Day. Pickens family documents and photographs can be viewed there through the month of August. The admission is free, donations are appreciated.

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