William Cunningham was born near Okeene, Oklahoma on May 13, 1901, soon after, his family moved close to Watonga where he attended school. He was graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1925 with a degree in Journalism. He worked as the editor of the Watonga Herald and as a schoolteacher in Hitchcock, Oklahoma, prior to his graduation from the University of Oklahoma. A year after graduation, he married Clarice Ellsworth. Until 1934, he freelanced articles, poems, and short stories for magazines and journals; and worked as an editorial assistant for Haldeman-Julius publishing and for the Illinois Miner and Oklahoma Leader magazines. He taught journalism, Marxist economics, and creative writing at Commonwealth College, Mena, Arkansas (1927-1934) and served as the first state director of the Oklahoma Writers Project (under the federal WPA) between 1935 and 1939. Following in the footsteps of his father, he and his sister, Agnes "Sis" Cunningham adopted leftist political philosophy and were avid supporters of the Socialist Party.
In 1935, William Cunningham published The Green Corn Rebellion with Vanguard Press. In his novel the historic World War I era rebellion in Seminole County is the background for a story of two brothers' attempts to cope with poverty, family, community tensions, and the call for armed rebellion against the government. The actual, short-lived uprising of poor farmers who championed the Socialist Party erupted when the U.S. government called for a national draft in 1917. Local townsfolk fought several skirmishes with the rebellious farmers before scattering them. Four townsmen and three farmers were killed. Of the 266 men arrested, 150 were convicted and 75 sent to jail for terms ranging from a few months to 10 years. The brief, spontaneous rebellion weakened the Oklahoma Socialist Party, helped to undermine the American socialist movement, and fueled the "Red Scare" of the 1920s. While teaching at Commonwealth College, Cunningham interviewed farmers who had participated in the rebellion and imbued the tale with his own socialist polemic.
Pretty Boy, his second book, was also published by Vanguard Press, in 1936. In this follow-up novel to Green Corn Rebellion, Cunningham lightly fictionalized the life of Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, to create yet another tale of the working poor oppressed by wealthy landowners and corporate bosses, and to portray Floyd as a "Robin Hood" figure. In 1952, he wrote a children's biography of the legendary frontiersman, Daniel Boone. In 1934 the Cunningham's filed for divorce and later he married Sara Brown. While director of Oklahoma's Federal Writers' Project, he and his staff worked on projects such as the WPA Guide to Oklahoma; a dictionary of the Comanche language; a compilation of musicians' biographies and a collection of former slave interviews. He was succeeded in this position by Jim Thompson.
After he left that post he migrated to New York, where he worked as the night editor for the TASS News Agency (1940-1948). His last years were spent as a freelance writer, living in New York. William Cunningham died February 20, 1967.
Graduated from Watonga High School in 1919 and attended the University of Oklahoma, earning a journalism degree in 1925.
Born and raised in western Oklahoma; wrote about Oklahoma political, social, and cultural history.
The Green Corn Rebellion. New York: Vanguard Press, 1935; University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.
Pretty Boy. New York: Vanguard, 1936.
The Real Book about Daniel Boone. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Books, by arrangement with F. Watts, 1952.
Danny. With Sara Brown Cunningham. New York: Crown, 1953.
Burbank, Garin (1976). When Farmers Voted Red: The Gospel of Socialism in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1910-1924. Greenwood Press, 1977 Kohn, Stephen M. (1994). American Political Prisoners: Prosecutions under the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Praeger Publishers, 1994 Peterson, H. C. (1957). Opponents of War, 1917-1918, University of Washington Press, 1998. Sellars, Nigel Anthony (1998). Oil, Wheat & Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma. 1905-1930. University of Oklahoma Press. Sellars, Nigel Anthony. Treasonous Tenant Farmers and Seditious Sharecroppers: The 1917 Green Corn Rebellion Trials 27. Oklahoma City University Law Review, pp. 1097-1141.