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William Attaway (November 19, 1911 – June 17, 1986) was an African American novelist, short story writer, essayist, songwriter, playwright, and screenwriter.


Early life

Attaway was born in Greenville, Mississippi. His parents were William S. Attaway, a physician, and Florence Parry Attaway, a teacher. When Attaway was six, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, to escape the segregated South.

In Chicago, Attaway showed little interest in school until he was assigned a poem written by Langston Hughes. Once he learned that Hughes was a black poet, Attaway decided to start applying himself to his school work. He even enjoyed writing so much that he wrote for his sister Ruth’s amateur dramatic groups.[1]

After graduating from high school, Attaway enrolled at the University of Illinois. There, he was a tennis college champion. Even though he was doing well at college, upon his father’s death Attaway dropped out and became a traveling worker for two years. During these years he worked as a salesman, a labor organizer, and a seaman,[2] and began to collect material for his later works.

Literary career

In 1935, Attaway began working on his first project as he helped to write the Federal Writers' Project guide to Illinois. While he was working on this project he became good friends with Richard Wright, another soon to be famous novelist. Soon after his first project was over Attaway returned to the University of Illinois and received his degree. He then moved to New York where his drama Carnival was produced.[1]

His first short story, "Tale of the Blackamoor", was published in 1936. In between works, he worked many odd jobs and even tried acting with his sister Ruth. Ruth later became a successful Broadway actress, and she ultimately helped to fuel Attaway’s career.[2] In 1939, Attaway’s first novel, Let me Breathe Thunder, was published. He then began working on his second and last novel, Blood on the Forge.

After Blood on the Forge, Attaway began to write songs, screenplays, and books about music.[1] Some of his main works included Calypso Song Book and Hear America Singing. Attaway also co-wrote the famous song "Day-O" (Banana Boat Song) for his friend Harry Belafonte. In the 1950s, he began to write for radio, TV, and films. Attaway was the first African-American writer to write scripts for film and TV.[2] He wrote for programs like Wide Wide World and Colgate Hour.

Attaway was married in 1962 to a woman named Frances. They lived in Barbados for eleven years with their two children Bill and Noelle. During his last year he lived in Los Angeles, California, writing screenplays. He died in 1986 of lung cancer.



  1. ^ a b c Jacobs, Nancy N. “William Attaway”. The Mississippi Writers and Musicians Project at Starkville High School. 2000. Starkville High School. Sept. 27, 2006.[1]
  2. ^ a b c “William Attaway, a great all-around writer!”. 2005. The African American Registry. Sept. 27, 2006. [2]


  • Applegate, Edd (2002). American Naturalistic and Realistic Novelists: A Biographical Dictionary, pp. 24-25. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0313315728.


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