John Oliver Killens was born January 14, 1916, in Macon, Georgia. He was the grandson of former slaves whose stories he heard first-hand. Growing up in the segregated south greatly influenced Killens. Racism often served as the foundations for his literary works once he began writing.
Killens graduated from Ballard Normal School in Macon, in 1933. He then enrolled in college with the desire to study law. He attended several universities until he found the one that fit: Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia, Howard University in Washinton D.C., and Robert H. Terrell Law School in Washington, D.C.
In his final year of college, Killens decided to transfer to Columbia University in New York City. There, he studied creative writing. After earning his B.A., he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. He served in the army from 1942 to 1945 during WWII. The military–in addition to the segregated south–often served as the setting for many of his written works.
In 1948, Killens returned to New York City. He joined various organizations, such as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In 1950, he co-founded the Harlem Writers Guild (HWG) alongside Rosa Guy. Four Years later, he published his first novel, Youngblood (1954). As a result of his novel, he was commissioned by Harry Belafonte to put his name on a screenplay that was written by Abraham Polonsky, who had been blacklisted by the HUAC.
And Then We Heard Thunder
In 1962, Killens wrote his second novel, And Then We Heard Thunder. His novel addressed the mistreatment of Black soldiers in the U.S. military. It was named one of five major literary works of the WWII era. Five years later in 1967, he wrote his third novel, ‘Sippi. His third story focused on the struggle to gain voting rights for Black people in the American south.
Killens continued to write novels. He also wrote plays, screenplays, short stories, and articles. His work has appeared in Black Scholar, Ebony, and the New York Times. He taught creative writing at various universities, including Medgar Evers College. There, he also founded the National Black Writers Conference. On October 27, 1987, John Oliver Killens died of cancer. He was 71 years old.
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