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*On this date, in 1909, Willard Motley was born. He was a Black novelist whose works have been adapted to visual media.
From Chicago, Willard Francis Motley was raised in a middle-class neighborhood. He began his writing career when, at 13, he submitted a short story to the Chicago Defender that was published. That newspaper gave him the chance to write a weekly column in the children’s section under the pen name "Bud Billiken.” Motley was the original "Bud Billiken," writer of entertaining pieces and children’s stories, and later, with a growing sense of social awareness, racial pride, and human suffering. At Englewood High School, Motley was active with the school’s newspaper and yearbook.
After graduation in 1929, Motley knew he wanted to be a writer and planned to attend the University of Wisconsin, but he could not do so due to the Depression. Instead, he took a bicycle trip from Chicago to New York and two automobile trips to California and the west, hoping to acquire a sense of what he wished to write about. He worked as a ranch hand, cook, migrant laborer, shipping clerk, photographer, interviewer for the Chicago Housing Authority, and writer for the Office of Civil Defense. Around 1940, he lived in Chicago’s slums, an experience that gave him the material for his first novel Knock on Any Door (1947).
This work was reviewed as a significant contribution to the naturalist tradition of American literature. So influencing was the book that it was made into a Hollywood feature film in 1949 starring Humphrey Bogart. In 1951, Motley published. We Fished All Night is a story that examines the lives of three World War II veterans. Let No Man Write My Epitaph, the sequel to Knock on Any Door, followed in 1958 and was made into another feature film two years later.
His last novel, Let Noon Be Fair (1966), looked at the gradual demise of a Mexican fishing village popular with American tourists. Willard Motley lived in Mexico for the last twelve years, dying of gangrene in Mexico City on March 4, 1965.
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York