Roi Ottley Collection  

St. Bonaventure University



     Vincent Lushington "Roi" Ottley was born on August 2, 1906 in New York City's Harlem.  His parents, Jerome P. and Beatrice (Brisbane) Ottley had emigrated to the United States from the island of Grenada.  The second of three children, Roi attended New York City public schools and quickly became known as an exceptional athlete.  Throughout his childhood, he played basketball, baseball, and ran track.  Upon setting a number of high school sprinting records in New York City, he was offered a track scholarship by Saint Bonaventure University. 
     Ottley was among the very first group of African Americans to attend St. Bonaventure when he enrolled in the fall of 1926.  A very popular and highly-respected student-athlete at St. Bonaventure, Ottley became involved in a number of activities.  He was a frequent contributor to The Laurel, a literary magazine at St. Bonaventure.  Ottley wrote articles and drew cartoons which appeared in both The Laurel as well as the campus newspaper, The Bona Venture.  At St. Bonaventure, Ottley also managed and sang for Dumas Male Choir, an all-black youth chorus.  Ottley, however, attended St. Bonaventure for only two years, as he transferred to the University of Michigan in 1928 to pursue a career in journalism.  

    In a 1944 interview with The New York Post, Ottley recalled how at St. Bonaventure, "...he found no racial prejudices but instead was accepted in all social gatherings."  Ottley's experiences at the University of Michigan though, weren't as positive.  Instead, he "discovered plenty of prejudices," and "was barred from such activities as debating and dramatics."  After staying at Michigan for only a year, Ottley decided to return home to New York City where he studied law for a short time at St. John's University.  While briefly attending school part time at Columbia and St. John's, Ottley began working as a journalist for The Amsterdam News.
     In 1943, Ottley's first book entitled New World A-Coming was published and immediately became a best seller.  It won a number of literary awards including the Life in America prize, Ainsworth Award, and Peabody Award.  In the book, Ottley explains what it's like to live as a "Negro" and how "Negroes" view their past and future.
     In 1944, Ottley earned an officers commission in the United States Army and traveled to Europe to cover World War II.  Known as "the first Negro war-correspondent to write for a major newspaper",  he covered the war on a day to day basis for Liberty Magazine, PM and the Pittsburgh Courier.  Not only did Ottley cover the war itself, but he also analyzed and wrote about racism in Europe.

Ottley in uniform as a war-correspondent

     Ottley focused primarily on race relations among the troops as well racism among Europeans and their respective countries.  During his time in Europe, he logged over 60,000 miles and visited 22 countries.  In 1945, he also became the first black-American journalist to meet with the Pope when he visited Pius XII.  
     Ottley's experiences overseas inspired him to write more books.  His second book, Black Odyssey was published in 1948 and looked at the life of "Negroes" since they're arrival to the United States.  It tells how blacks have risen from slavery and struggled ever since.  It also explores the varying degrees of racism that existed in the North and South at the time.  Among the people it depicts are Joe Louis, Walter White and Crispus Attucks.  
     In 1951, another book by Ottley entitled No Green Pastures was published.  This book took an in-depth look at race relations in Europe and exposed the serious problems that European countries faced with regards to race.  During his travels to England, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Israel and the Balkans, Ottley conducted a considerable number of interviews and surveys.  He found that although conditions may appear to be better in Europe, its race problems are more severe and institutionalized.  
     His fourth book, The Lonely Warrior was based on the incredible life and accomplishments of Robert Abbot, founder of the Chicago Defender.  Another book, White Marble Lady was published after his death by his widow, Alice Dungey.  Ottley had virtually completed the entire book, and Alice helped put the final touches on it.   White Marble Lady, his only fictional book, told the story of an interracial marriage.  In 1967, Ottley's final work, The Negro in New York was published.  Along with William Weatherby, Roi Ottley edited this "informal social history" of blacks in the United States beginning in the 1600's.  
     Some of Ottley's best known work as a journalist came while he was a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.  The majority of his articles focused on race-relations as well as the difficult social and economic conditions that blacks encountered.  Although Ottley wrote about the obstacles that blacks faced, he also reported the progress that they were making at the same time.  He devoted numerous columns to the individual accomplishments of blacks within their communities.  He wrote about new businesses and youth centers that blacks were opening up throughout Chicago.  He reported on the arrivals of new pastors as well as the achievements of black women within the city.  While in Chicago, Ottley even hosted his own weekly radio show on WGN.  

Photos by Cleodia H. Lyles, May 1956, Chicago, IL.

     When looking back at the life of Ottley, it's important to understand that he was much more than a writer.    "From a professional viewpoint, Ottley became a combination journalist, social historian, author, columnist, radio commentator, editor, and war correspondent." (1)  Despite the unfair treatment of blacks throughout his lifetime, Ottley was able to overcome substantial obstacles.  Although he personally experienced  racism and prejudice throughout his career, he never lost faith in himself nor his cause.  Because of Ottley's ability to report fairly and accurately on race relations, he was widely respected and admired by blacks and whites alike.  Reflecting back upon his career as a black journalist who encountered and reported on racism, Ottley said: "Sometimes, moved deeply by such damnable acts of prejudice, I have sat down to write a hot-headed protest.  But fortunately, I have allowed the words to cool and then I know it is not right.  It must be told without passion.  The facts must tell the story." (2)



1) Frances C. Locher, ed., Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92 Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company & The Book Tower, 1980), 388.  Max J. Herzberg, The Reader's Guide to Encyclopedia of American Literature (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1962), 839.  Donald Paneth, The Encyclopedia of American Journalism (New York: Facts on File publications, 1983), 358  (as quoted by Alan Delozier in An Examination of Race-Relations in Great Britain in the United States, 1942-45 by Black American Journalist Roi Ottley.)

2) Dexter Teed, "Ottley sees New World A-Coming" New York Post Daily Magazine, 7 April 1944. p.1

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Last updated: 05 December 2011

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