Three weeks ago, on Labor Day weekend, Clotilde Stenson had what she said she knew, in hindsight, would be her last conversation with Bill Pickens.
They were seated in a pair of chairs on the front lawn of his family home on Ninevah Place in Sag Harbor Hills, a modest house with a pale green exterior, the first of its kind that was built in the neighborhood in the 1950s, just steps from the bay.
They were talking about their lifelong friendship, one that spanned more than 75 years, sparked by the bonds their parents had formed a century ago, and agreed they were more than friends; they had come to consider each other as brother and sister, from decades spent together during their formative years, growing up in the brownstones their parents owned in a neighborhood of Black professionals in the Bedford-Stuyvestant section of Brooklyn, and their summer homes on the beach in Sag Harbor.
“We were talking about our friends that we had grown up with, and reminiscing about those days,” Ms. Stenson, 85, said earlier this week. “We had a wonderful childhood, and were talking about some friends that aren’t here with us now, just appreciating the memories we had of times with them, and feeling a little nostalgic.
“I felt it might be the last conversation from what he said to me,” she added. They shared an embrace, and a kiss on the cheek. Mr. Pickens, Ms. Stenson realized, was saying goodbye.
Less than a month later, on September 27, Mr. Pickens died, on his 85th birthday, surrounded by family.
In her letter to neighbors informing them of the news, Ms. Stenson’s daughter, Lisa Stenson Desamours, who serves as Sag Harbor Hills Improvement Association president, called William Pickens III the “patriarch” of the Sag Harbor Hills, the area that, along with nearby Ninevah and Azurest, make up SANS (which stands for Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, Nineveh Subdivisions) along the eastern side of the village on Sag Harbor Bay.
The beach community has been a summer enclave for Black families since the late 1930s, and the Pickens family was one of many from the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn that purchased property and built modest beach homes there in the 1960s, although they trace their roots in the area to the early 1900s.
“He captured the soul of our community, having initially visited Sag Harbor more than seven decades ago,” she wrote. “Every encounter with him brought joy and a smile.”
She called him an “orator extraordinaire,” adding that he mentored many young people both “within and beyond our community,” helping them “fulfill college dreams.”
Spending his formative years on the beach with friends sparked a deep and enduring love of Sag Harbor in Mr. Pickens, one he carried with him his entire life, and which manifested itself in many ways. He was actively involved in community and civic life in the village, creating the Sag Harbor Initiative in 1987, along with his wife, Patricia, bringing together a diverse group of some of the brightest minds in the country to foster values of equality, freedom and community.
He spent more recent years fiercely advocating for the SANS neighborhoods to be included on the New York State Register of Historic Places, and trying to protect the tight-knit, family communities from the encroaching shadow of overdevelopment.
Mr. Pickens was born into a distinguished family with close ties and relationships to many Black luminaries, including the poet Langston Hughes, baseball player Jackie Robinson, and the performer and Civil Rights activist Lena Horne, among others. Mr. Pickens seemed destined for greatness from the start. His grandfather, William Pickens, was a founding member of the NAACP and the first Black Ph.D. graduate of Yale University, while his mother, Emily Montier Brown Pickens, was one of the founders of the Jack and Jill of America, started by Black mothers in the 1930s looking to foster social connections and education opportunities for their children. The family can also trace its roots in the country back to the 1600s. In 1992, Mr. Pickens and his son, John, worked together researching the family lineage, uncovering the fact that the family are direct descendants of the first mayor of Philadelphia.
As a youth, Mr. Pickens was a member of the Centurion Club, a New York City social club in which he and his peers attended monthly dinners, learning social graces that would serve them well later in life as they all embarked on professional careers as lawyers, doctors and businessmen.
E.T. Williams grew up with Mr. Pickens in Brooklyn and in Sag Harbor, and was a member of that club as well. After graduating from high school, they went off to different colleges, with Mr. Williams staying close to home and Mr. Pickens heading to the University of Vermont — where he would major in history and political science and also became the first Black president of the student body government — but they remained close as they both embarked on careers and started families of their own, still retreating to Sag Harbor every summer.
Mr. Williams remembers his friend as a natural leader.
“He had a very imposing personality,” Mr. Williams said.
“He was very outgoing and used to be very good at getting everybody together to do things,” Mr. Williams added, whether that meant racing their boats on the bay, fishing, or swimming.
Sag Harbor was not only a place that Mr. Pickens loved; it was also the place where he found love. He met his wife, Audrey Patricia Brannen, in Sag Harbor in 1962. She also had deep roots in the area, as her father was a former Sag Harbor trustee. They had three children — William IV, John, and Pam — and were married for more than 50 years before Mrs. Pickens died in 2015.
After graduating from UVM in 1958, Mr. Pickens embarked on a successful career as a business executive, working for big name companies like Marine Midland Bank and Phillip Morris before starting his own company, the management and consulting firm William Pickens Associates.
He served on the board of many nonprofits, was a member of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, served as a director of the executive committee of the NAACP.
Mr. Pickens served his country in a military capacity as well, enlisting as a second lieutenant and rising to the rank of captain in the U.S. Air Force. When he was stationed in Japan, he learned to speak Japanese. He had outside influence in American foreign policy over the years, with close ties to Henry Kissinger — who wrote John’s college recommendation letter — and other major political players.
Locally, Mr. Pickens found several outlets for his expertise in championing worthwhile causes. The writer and publisher Biddle Duke said Mr. Pickens was instrumental in helping his uncle, Tony Duke, start Boys Harbor (later re-named “The Harbor”), an East Hampton-based camp for inner city youth. Mr. Pickens first joined the organization when he was just 16, as a camp counselor, and became very close with the Duke family. He served on the board of the organization for 60 years.
“He was a key figure in every aspect of building it, from raising money to reaching out in the African-American community in New York City,” Mr. Duke said.
“The thing about Bill was that he cared,” Mr. Duke added. “He had immense empathy. He served our country, he served the world, he served his community, and he was devoted to my family, and, of course, to his own.”
When Mr. Pickens moved full-time to his Sag Harbor home in 2004, he became even more involved in preserving the SANS community he loved so much, and in particular made an effort to ensure the character of the neighborhood, and everything it stood for, could withstand the forces of modernization and overdevelopment. Large, 5,000-square-foot-plus homes that were built in those neighborhoods in recent years, by developers with no real intention of living there or engaging in community life were a threat to the way of life Black families had established for themselves decades ago, during a time when rampant discrimination was a daily fact of life.
“Billy was a person that loved his country and wanted everyone to get along,” Mr. Williams said. “Inclusiveness was very important to him, and he also felt that the Black community should have a continuing presence and important presence in village life.”
Mr. Pickens’s engagement in civic life was appreciated by Sag Harbor Village Mayor Jim LaRocca, who has known Mr. Pickens for more than 20 years, he said. He recalled their frequent lunches on the porch at the American Hotel, where they would talk “about anything and everything under the sun,” he said.
Mr. LaRocca said he came to view Mr. Pickens as not only a friend, but a trusted advisor over the years as he became more deeply involved in village politics and ultimately ran for mayor.
“He gave you his friendship wholeheartedly, and he was very good company,” Mr. LaRocca said. “And he was a lot of fun to be with.”
Mr. LaRocca said he particularly loved Mr. Pickens’s affinity for the English language, a trait others lauded him for, and said Mr. Pickens had a gift for wordplay that he enjoyed and admired.
“If I were to try and describe him using his style of wordplay, I would say that Bill was a gentleman and a gentle man,” Mr. LaRocca said. He added that, during a recent lunch meeting, he was speaking with Mr. Pickens about the ongoing problem of overdevelopment in Sag Harbor, exacerbated further by New York City residents fleeing the city because of the pandemic. As it often did, Mr. Pickens’s way with words helped sum up why it has been a particular problem for longtime SANS residents.
“He said, ‘It’s not about race, it’s about space,’” Mr. LaRocca said. “I loved that, because it really encapsulated the issue.”
“Don’t pillage our village” was another oft-repeated phrase by Mr. Pickens when he spoke publicly to advocate for the SANS neighborhood and in favor of preserving the way of life in Sag Harbor generally speaking. Mr. Pickens’s son, John, said the number of causes his father was involved in, the list of impressive feats on his resume, and the kind of influence he had in so many areas of life are staggering, and nearly impossible to sum up. He pointed out that he was also well known for writing countless letters of recommendation for young people applying to college.
“He knew his name held weight,” the younger Mr. Pickens said of his father.
Mr. Pickens is survived by his three children, William Pickens IV, John Pickens, and Pam Pickens; as well as a granddaughter, Breighan Wilson.
When reached on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after his father’s passing, John Pickens said the family was still processing his death. But, much in the way his father might have, he summed up his father’s long and storied legacy with a few well-chosen words.
“His children loved him dearly,” he said. “He was a man of the world, and he kept his hands in the soil.”