A man ahead of his time, born in 1894 and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the son of a man who had endured a childhood in slavery though the son of his owner, William M. Kelley, Sr. left home at age 15 because they had no colored high school in Chattanooga.
He went to Knoxville and stayed with a cousin until he got his high school diploma. He followed his sisters to Wilberforce College (now University) in Ohio but could only afford to stay a half of a semester. He choked up telling his son about leaving, walking out the main campus gate.
He worked on the railroad and ended up in Chicago, resolved to make a career in writing. A white man, a German, gave him a break though he had no experience, an opportunity to work for his magazine. He learned quickly because by 1922 at age 28 he had become the Editor in Chief of Harlem’s New York Amsterdam News, at the time a little Negro society sheet. Kelley modernized it, hired a young staff and brought in news service machines. He raised the newspaper to downtown standards.
His glory days lasted only eleven years. By that time he had participated in the Harlem Renaissance, in the newspaper and in Kelley’s Magazine publishing some of the young poets of the era including Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. He had also met the young woman who would become the mother of his son. But in 1933, the woman who owned the Amsterdam News fired him because she wanted to replace him with her new husband.
Kelley tried to start his own Harlem newspaper, The Daily Citizen, but it lasted only six months, folding weeks before he would have received an infusion of cash from the Sun Oil Company. Throughout the thirties and into the forties, he worked for various Harlem newspapers. His son remembers going to the office of the Peoples Voice, where he introduced his son to the renowned cartoonist, Ollie Harrington, who later fled to East Germany, behind the Iron Curtain. Another time his father took him to the Dunbar Apartments to meet Matthew Henson, the first man to reach the North Pole.
During World War II, he worked as a night watchman on the Brooklyn Navy Yards, with a big pistol in a shoe box on the top shelf of his closet. A sad and disillusioned writer who no longer wrote, except for an occasional letter to the editor, he ended up working for New York State Department of Labor as an employment interviewer, a good solid job that paid for his sons lunch at a prestigious private school in Riverdale, East Bronx.
His pretty young wife died at the end of their sons’ freshman year at Harvard College. Kelley lasted only sixteen months longer, dead at sixty-four, but seeming older, by his example of steadfast loyalty and love to Africamerican culture and people and his personal sacrifice to his family, accomplishing more than he probably knew. A man ahead of his time…