Author, educator, and folklorist William A. Owens was born on November 2, 1905, to Charles and Jessie Ann Chennault Owens in Pin Hook, Texas. William Owens attended East Texas State Teacher's College and received bachelor's and master's degrees from Southern Methodist University and in 1941 the doctorate from State University of Iowa.
In 1941 Owens worked at the University of Oklahoma as a folklore specialist. In 1942 he joined the U.S. Army, serving in counterintelligence. After military service he went to Columbia University. Returning to the Southwest in the 1950s, Owens directed the Oral History of Texas Oil Pioneers project for the University of Texas. During this time he conducted numerous interviews with early-day oil workers about their experiences in the Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico fields. These materials are held in the William Owens Papers at the University of Texas, which document his career and include lyrics to many folk songs and recordings from the 1930s and 1940s. Owens won the Texas Institute of Letters award for his 1966 autobiography, This Stubborn Soil. His other books include Swing and Turn: Texas Play-Party Games (1936), Texas Folk Songs (1950), Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad (1953), Fever in the Earth (1958), Look to the River (1963), A Fair and Happy Land (1975), and, with folklorist Mody Boatright, Tales from the Derrick Floor: A People's History of the Oil Industry (1970). More importantly for Oklahoma studies, his novel Walking on Borrowed Land (1954) tells the story of an educated African American who leaves the South to become a separate-school principal in an Oklahoma town called Columbus, located in Little Dixie. The novel explores the complex racial attitudes and interrelationships that existed in early twentieth-century Oklahoma. Owens served as a professor of English at Columbia University from 1947 until his retirement. He died December 9, 1990, in Nyack, NewYork.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Ann Hodges Morgan, "Oklahoma in Literature," in Oklahoma: New Views of the Forty-Sixth State, ed. Ann Hodges Morgan and H. Wayne Morgan (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982). William T. Pilkington, William A. Owens, Southwest Writers Series No. 17 (Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1968).
Ruby W. Wile
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