fb-pixel Skip to main content

William B. Branch, playwright of the black experience, dies at 92

NEW YORK — William B. Branch, a playwright, television writer, producer, and actor who, in his work, explored African American life and sought to challenge the stereotypes that burdened it, died on Sunday in Hawthorne, N.Y. He was 92.

The cause was metastatic cancer, his daughter, Rochelle Branch, said. Mr. Branch, who died at a hospice facility, had lived in New Rochelle, N.Y.

As a playwright, Mr. Branch delved into the black experience, both in the 20th century and earlier, in off-Broadway plays such as “A Medal for Willie,” about the bitterness that ensues when a black World War II veteran who had been mistreated in the service is decorated posthumously; “A Wreath for Udomo,” with its theme of colonial oppression in South Africa; and “In Splendid Error,” about the tangled relationship between the abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown.


He also wrote for television. In one instance he was commissioned by the actors and producers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to write “A Letter From Booker T,” a historical drama, for public television.

On radio, he directed “The Jackie Robinson Show” on NBC in the late 1950s; for two years he was also the ghostwriter for Robinson’s nationally syndicated column for The New York Post.

William Blackwell Branch, the sixth of seven boys, was born on Sept. 11, 1927, in New Haven, Conn., to James and Lola (Douglas) Branch. Both his parents were well-educated, and five of the six brothers attended college — a rarity for African Americans at the time — three earning graduate degrees. One brother, Frederick C. Branch, was the first African American commissioned officer in the Marine Corps.

Mr. Branch spent his first 13 years mostly in New York State before moving with his family to Charlotte, N.C., and then Washington, where, at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, he focused on acting and writing. In the mid-1940s he received a four-year scholarship to Northwestern University in Illinois, with the stage again in his sights.


He was still a freshman in 1945 when a chance meeting with the actor Canada Lee led to an audition that landed Mr. Branch an understudy role in Chicago in the all-black touring cast of Philip Yordan’s hit Broadway play “Anna Lucasta.”

After graduating in 1949, he moved to New York, intent on carving out a stage career there. But work for black actors was scarce, he discovered, and while holding down odd jobs he turned to playwriting.

One day he spotted a newspaper article about a three-star general who had been dispatched to a small Southern town during World War II to present a posthumous award for bravery to a black soldier’s mother. He clipped it out. Months later, Mr. Branch drew on that article in creating “A Medal for Willie,” a one-act play.

It was during his Army service, in Nuremberg, Germany, that Mr. Branch wrote “In Splendid Error,” a dramatization of the tension between Douglass and Brown, who were otherwise allies as abolitionists, over Brown’s ill-fated plan to ignite a slave rebellion with a raid on a military arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859.

Mr. Branch began working in television, film, and radio in the mid-1950s, beginning with religiously themed works such as “What Is Conscience?” an episode of the CBS religious series “Lamp Unto My Feet.”


He also did some television acting, notably in the lead role of “Blessed Martin de Porres,” a CBS broadcast about the 19th-century mixed-race son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed slave who was canonized by Pope John XXIII in 1962.

He continued to write plays, though intermittently. Notable among them was “A Wreath for Udomo” (1960), which was adapted from a novel by the mixed-race South African writer Peter Abrahams.

Mr. Branch earned a master of fine arts degree in dramatic arts from Columbia University in 1958 and later did postgraduate work in film at Yale University School of Drama, where he was named an American Broadcasting Co. resident fellow in screenwriting.

His experience at Yale led to “Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class” (1968), a 90-minute documentary that he wrote and produced for National Educational Television. It won a Blue Ribbon Award from the 1969 American Film Festival and was nominated for an Emmy.