ⓘ William Nauns Ricks
William Nauns Ricks was an American poet who lived and worked primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area. He published hundreds of poems, mainly in the popular press, and one collection.
1.1. Life Early life 1876–1898
Ricks was born in Wytheville, Virginia to Lucy Phoebe and William Ricks, in the last years of Reconstruction. Delilah Beasley, in an early 20th-century biographical compendium, says he was of "mixed Indian parentage" and claims he was a "direct descendant of Powhattan" through his mother. Beasley continues:
His maternal great grandfather was of Indian and Royal African blood. When quite a boy he realized that the few drops of African blood in his veins would make his life a difficult one. After seeing the lynching of a black youth he made a vow to himself that he would honor these drops of African blood by rendering service to the Negro race.
Throughout his life, Ricks was affiliated with numerous fraternal associations and political causes. While a young man in Virginia, Ricks registered Black voters for the Republicans. At age 18, he moved to Roanoke, where he joined a lodge of the Odd Fellows and was elected a Noble Grand. He also belonged to the True Reformers namesake of the True Reformer Building, which was, "t is not clear whether he saw combat". He was a member of Company A of the 24th Infantry Regiment, which was composed primarily of Black soldiers. Daniels observes that Rickss military service was one indicator of an "intense patriotism" that "was manifest throughout his life".
After the war, he joined the Military Order of Serpents, a fraternal society, and was elected an officer. The Order appears to have been constituted almost exclusively of veterans of the "Spanish War", as they called it.
1.2. Life California 1902–1948
Ricks remained in California from after the war until his death. He lived first in Los Angeles and other cities in Southern California, and moved to San Francisco in 1904. He remained in the Bay Area thereafter, and is buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery.
Relative to eastern states, California in the early 20th century did not have a large Black population; it started to grow substantially following World War II. However, California was nonetheless home to a variety of organizations, including the NAACP, that fought Jim Crow in the American West. Ricks was involved with the NAACP while in Southern California. He was also a member of the Los Angeles Mens Forum, organization founded in 1903 which aimed to "encourage united effort on the part of Negroes for their advance".
In San Francisco, he worked various jobs before becoming an office worker at the California Packing Company later renamed Del Monte where he remained until 1946, two years before his death. As of 1915–17, he lived at 120 Market Street in San Francisco. He remained involved in electoral politics in San Francisco, serving on the Republican State Central Committee and as a judge of elections.
Ricks was a cellist and singer. In 1915, he performed in a choral concert at the Hamilton Auditorium in Oakland. The community organized the concert as an alternative to the stage version of The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, which was performed for several weeks in San Francisco that year, beginning on March 1.
2.1. Poetry Overview
Rickss poems deal with a wide variety of subjects, as one might expect from an artist who published so extensively. The 1914 work "The Whistle-Maker", for instance, after which Rickss only collection is named, compares a performer who makes and plays whistles to figures in classical mythology such as Orpheus and Pan.
According to a biographical sketch of Ricks held by the California State Library - likely filled out by Ricks himself - he published work in the Los Angeles Times and Oakland Tribune, among many other newspapers, and lost a substantial amount of his work in the 1906 San Francisco fires. He first published in the Pasadena Daily News-Star in 1902. Newspaper poetry was quite common in early 20th century America, so it is not surprising that many of Rickss poems - of which he published hundreds - were featured in the popular press. This mode of publishing declined after World War I and the rise of literary modernism.
According to a 1940 article in the California Eagle, one of Rickss poems was included in the "largest book of poetry in the world", exhibited at the 1939 Worlds Fair.
2.2. Poetry Political and social themes
Among the many subjects Ricks treated in his work were political and social issues, including the oppression of Black Americans and hopes for racial progress in the United States.
"Lynched - At Waco, and on Calvary" 1916 compares lynching to crucifixion. Given the title and date of composition, Ricks likely responds in the work to the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas.
Introducing "Do We Remember? - Memorial Day, 1916", published in the Eagle that year, an anonymous commentator wrote:
As Scott and Burns sang of the fatherland, so sings Mr. Ricks of his people in this country. In every bit we find a sort of pleading, but manly ring in blank verse and rhythm asking for universal brotherhood of all mankind.
The poem presumably refers to the end of the Civil War in 1865, given its frequent reference to events 50 years prior. It is composed in quatrains of iambic tetrameter. Ricks writes in the final stanza:
Do we remember why they fought? Have we from them their vision caught? Does Liberty stand out as clear? Is Freedom to our hearts as dear? … Let Freedom true our land embrace, That we, like them, the grave may face; In conscious pride of work well done, To keep Old Glory in the sun.
The Eagle published Rickss poetry with some regularity. A 1917 article reports that, on July 1, 1917, Ricks delivered an ode to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Young, the first African American to become an Army colonel, at an event organized by the NAACP at which Young spoke. Ricks began the poem, also in iambic tetrameter:
Could I portray in words of grace The service you have done your race; Could I but half such service do; Then I might pen a song to you.
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