Newark Public Library
The name Hughes Allison isn’t widely known but at a time, he was one of the most promising Black writers of his era. Allison’s most notable milestone as a writer is that he crafted the first Black detective story, which was part of his larger aim to shatter Black stereotypes in mainstream white America.
Allison was born in 1908 in Greenville, South Carolina. In 1919, his family moved north to Newark, New Jersey, where he attended high school and college. Although he initially wanted to become a doctor, Allison found writing to be his true calling and he entered Upsala College in East Orange to undertake the task of studying English and literature. While in school, Allison worked as an elevator attendant and wrote short stories and poems, some of which were published. His first story was published in 1935.
The next major break for Allison happened with his play, “The Trial of Dr. Beck,” which featured a white actor by the name of William Bendix and was produced on Broadway. This manifested a connection with the Federal Theatre Project by the Works Progress Administration. His time with the WPA was fruitful, as the organization built a Negro theater which he produced works for. However, Allison’s chief aim was to write strong Black leads to appeal to white audiences that they deserved to have the same spotlight as their counterparts.
Allison created the character of Detective Joe Hill, a Black detective modeled after real-life Newark Police Department detective, Carlton B. Norris. However, the Federal Theatre program failed to sustain itself due to economic pressure and despite the accolades and his formidable talent, Allison’s work never reached its zenith.
Allison’s Joe Hill could have easily served as a precursor for Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins characters.
Later in life, Allison’s health made it difficult for him to write. He struggled to make ends meet but his wife, librarian Elitea Anderson, kept a good record of his writings and manuscripts. He passed away in 1974 at the age of 66.
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