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William Attaway was born on this date in 1911. He was a Black novelist, essayist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, and songwriter.
Born in Greenville, MS, William Alexander Attaway was the son of William S. Attaway, a medical doctor, and Florence Parry Attaway, a teacher of a peripatetic professional family. His older sister was Ruth Attaway. When William was six, his family moved to Chicago, where young Attaway attended a vocational high school, planning to become an auto mechanic, until one day in English class; he read a poem by Langston Hughes. After discovering that Hughes was a Black poet, he began applying himself more deeply in his school work. He soon did some scriptwriting for his sister Ruth’s amateur dramatic groups.
Upon graduation from high school, Attaway enrolled at the University of Illinois where he was a tennis college champion. The death of his father forced him to drop out of college and became a traveling worker for two years. He moved around the country, working as a seaman, salesman, and labor organizer. It was during these years he was gathering material for his later writing.
In 1935, Attaway helped write the Federal Writers' Project guide for the state of Illinois. He also became friends with Mississippi writer Richard Wright. Attaway returned to the University of Illinois later that year, received his degree, and moved to New York City. His drama “Carnival” was produced about this time.
In 1936, Attaway published his first story "Tale of the Blackamoor." He worked odd jobs and even tried acting with his sister Ruth, who later became a successful Broadway actress. His literary career truly began under the tutelage of his sister. In 1939, while performing with the traveling production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's “You Can't Take It With You,” he learned that his first novel “Let Me Breathe Thunder,” had been accepted for publication. With a two-year grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Attaway began work on his next novel, “Blood on the Forge,” which was published in 1941. Attaway's novels were well received by critics but did not attract much public attention.
After "Blood on the Forge" was published, he did not write any more novels, instead, writing songs, books about music, and screenplays. In the 1950s, he began writing for radio, films, and TV. In 1957 he produced “Calypso Song Book,” a collection of songs. In 1967, he wrote “Hear America Singing,” a children's history of popular music in America. He also wrote songs for Harry Belafonte, including the famous "Day-O Banana Boat" song. He was married in the Belafonte home Altogether, Attaway wrote over 500 songs.
Attaway was the first Black writer to write scripts for TV and films. He wrote for small screen programs like the Wide Wide World and the Colgate Hour. He wrote A "Hundred Years of Laughter," an hour-long special on Black humor that aired in 1964. The hour-long special featured comedians Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, and Flip Wilson in their first appearances on television. Attaway lived with his wife, Frances, and his two children, Bill and Noelle, in Barbados for 11 years. His last years were spent in California writing screenplays. William Attaway died of cancer in June 1986.