Roark Bradford, novelist, short story writer, and journalist, was born in Lauderdale County, where he was raised on a cotton plantation in the Nankipoo-Knob Creek area. The African Americans who worked the farm and with whom he attended church strongly influenced him. He closely observed their lives and drew on his early experiences to create his fiction.
Bradford received his education at home, in local public schools, and at the University of California, where he earned an LL.B. degree shortly before the United States entered World War I. He volunteered for military service and was posted as an artillery officer to the Panama Canal Zone; afterwards he taught military science at a Mississippi college. Following his discharge in 1920, Bradford took a series of reporting jobs in Georgia and Louisiana and eventually became Sunday editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He left newspaper work in 1926 to devote himself to writing.
As a writer, Bradford pursued a lifelong interest in the culture and language of southern African Americans. He both admired black culture and was puzzled by it, and his prose reflects this conflict. From his studies of black speech, Bradford observed that African Americans created a beautiful and rhythmic language, and he deeply appreciated black music for its expressive, creative character.
African American religion remained at the heart of Bradford's fiction. Drawing on childhood memories and the influence of local African American ministers, Bradford created a body of literature that pitted a good-natured God against an equally good-natured Satan. One of his first stories, “Child of God,” published in Harper's, won an O. Henry Memorial Award in 1927. He followed that success with Ol' Man Adam an' His Chillun (1928), which playwright Marc Connelly adapted into a 1930 smash-hit biblical fantasy, “The Green Pastures.” The play ran seventy-three weeks in New York and won a Pulitzer Prize.
Bradford's stories and novels sold well among contemporary readers but today are considered racist and sentimental. Bradford's decline in popularity coincided with the Harlem Renaissance, which gave a lasting black voice to black literature. In 1946 he accepted a position in the English department at Tulane University, which was just then launching an innovative program for creative writing. Bradford died in New Orleans in 1948 from an illness he contracted during World War II while on active duty in Africa.