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John Oliver Killens papers

Identifier: Manuscript Collection No. 957

Scope and Content Note

The collection consists of the personal papers of John Oliver Killens from 1937-1992. The papers document his personal, intellectual, professional and political life. The collection also contains material collected by Killens about African American organizations and political causes. The papers include correspondence (1937-1990); writings (1939-1992); writings by others (1936-1989); printed material (1940-1987); teaching files (1965-1987); organizational and conference files (1955-1988); subject files (1951-1987); personal papers (1934-1988); and photographs (1935-1983).


  • 1937-1987

Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Restrictions on Access

Special restrictions apply: Series 5: Some student records are restricted until 2053.

Collection stored off-site. Researchers must contact the Rose Library in advance to access this collection.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

All requests subject to limitations noted in departmental policies on reproduction.

Biographical Note

John Oliver Killens (1916-1987), African American novelist, essayist, screenwriter, political activist, and teacher. Killens was born on January 14, 1916, in Macon, Georgia, to Willie Lee Coleman and Charles Myles Killens, Sr. Killens attended Morris Brown College after spending a year at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, on an athletic basketball scholarship. In 1935, he moved to Washington, D.C., to take a position at the National Labor Relations Board. While in Washington, Killens studied evenings at Howard University and in 1939 he began to study law at night at the Terrell Law School. In 1942, he was drafted into the United States Army. He married his wife, Grace Ward Jones, in 1943.

Following his discharge from the military, Killens enrolled in the summer writing school at Columbia University. In 1951, he entered the New York University Writing Center, a clinic for professional writers, gaining admittance based on submitted manuscripts. During the first semester his short story "God Bless America," was accepted by the California Quarterly. In May 1954 Killens first novel, Youngblood, was published. In 1963, his novel And Then We Heard the Thunder (1963) received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Killens also published numerous short stories and three screenplays.

Killens was active in a number of civil rights and labor organizations. As a student, he was a member of the National Negro Congress, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and the United Public Workers of America/CIO. In later years, Killens served in various capacities in the New York State NAACP and was the founding Chairman, along with Harry Belafonte, of its National Cultural Committee. He actively supported and participated with the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He helped Malcolm X set up the Organization for Afro-American Unity. Killens also took an active interest in organizations dedicated to African American literature and the arts. He was a founding member and served on the Board of Directors of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, the Institute of the Black World, the Black Drama Productions Company, the National Center of Afro American Artists and Third World Cinema Productions. Killens was one of the founders, together with John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Walter Christmas and others of the Harlem Writers Guild.

In his later career, Killens taught and served as a writer-in-residence at several universities including Fisk University, Columbia University, Howard University, Bronx Community College, and Medgar Evers College.

John Oliver Killens died on October 27, 1987.


61.75 linear feet (127 boxes); 5 oversized papers boxes (OP); 3 oversized bound volumes (OBV)


Papers of John Oliver Killens, African American novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and political activist, including correspondence, writings by Killens, writings by others, and printed material.

Arrangement Note

OOrganized into nine series: (1) Correspondence, (2) Writings by Killens, (3) Writings by others, (4) Printed material, (5) Teaching files, (6) Organizations and conferences, (7) Subject files, (8) Personal papers, and (9) Photographs.


Purchase, 2003


Control level 3


File name: killens957.doc


Processed by Elizabeth Roke, Elizabeth Stice, and Margaret Greaves, June 2011

Control level 3

File name: killens957.doc

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John Oliver Killens papers, 1937-1987
Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University
September 28, 2006
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Revision Statements

  • July 29, 2015: Finding aid revised to include enhanced metadata tagging.

Repository Details

Part of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library Repository

540 Asbury Circle
Atlanta Georgia 30322 United States