Alice Childress, Author of Trouble in Mind

Alice Childress

Playwright and novelist Alice Childress (October 12, 1916 – August 14, 1994) was a prolific and influential contributor to American theater and letters throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Her first full-length play, Trouble in Mindpremiered in 1955 and won an Obie.

Another play, Wedding Band, was shown on network television in 1974 (though network affiliates in several southern states refused to carry it).  

None of this would have mattered to Childress who said, “I never was ever interested in being the first woman to do anything. I always felt that I should be the 50th or the 100th. Women were kept out of everything.”

She saw being “first” not so much as a triumph but as an indictment of a society that had prevented women from achieving the things she did before she did them.

Despite her many accomplishments as a playwright, however, she is best known today as the author of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich, a groundbreaking young adult novel about a 13-year-old heroin addict that was highly praised—and the subject of a 1982 Supreme Court case, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico.  


Early Life

Childress was born Alice Herndon in Charleston, South Carolina, on October 12, 1916 (though she would later shave years off her age by claiming a birth year of 1917 and even 1920). Her father, Alonzo Herrington, worked in insurance, and her mother, Florence White, was a seamstress.

After her parents split up (some accounts say when she was five; others when she was nine), Childress was sent to Harlem to be raised by her maternal grandmother, Eliza Campbell.   Childress later said her relationship with Campbell was among the most fortunate things in her life.


Remarkable Grandmother 

Born to an enslaved woman, Campbell’s formal education did not go beyond fifth grade. Even so, she had an active and curious mind. She encouraged her granddaughter to make up stories about the people they observed on New York City’s streets and then write them down.  

She immersed young Alice in the cultural richness of the city. They went to art galleries and visited other neighborhoods for festivals and to encounter people of other ethnic backgrounds. After these outings, Campbell often asked Alice what she had observed and suggested she write it down.  

Campbell took Alice to church, where Alice heard the powerful stories of those who stood to tell the congregation of their troubles—loved ones in jail, sickness and pain, financial troubles, or deaths and suicides. According to biographer La Vinia Delois Jennings, these accounts gave the future playwright and novelist details she would use in her future work. 

Childress received support from teachers as well, including those at Wadleigh High School, New York’s first high school for girls. Starting in junior high, Childress worked in theater projects with leftist sympathies, like those of the Urban League and the Negro Theatre Youth League of the Federal Theatre Project.

The death of Childress’s grandmother forced Childress to drop out of school after two years of high school, however. According to one source, she supported herself as a domestic worker at times, as well as taking on other types of work. When Childress was about nineteen, she married Alvin Childress, also an actor. In 1935, they had a daughter.  


The American Negro Theatre 

In 1941, Childress joined the American Negro Theatre (ANT), founded just two years earlier as a cooperative. Actors, playwrights, directors, and stage crew divided not only expenses and profits but also all the roles of theatrical work. Thus, Childress had the chance to act, write, and direct as well as do make-up, costumes, and erect sets.

She worked alongside rising talents Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte, all of whom would go on to become well-known actors. Childress’s husband Alvin was also part of the ANT. 

In 1944, Childress had a role in Anna Lucasta, the ANT’s first Broadway production, and was nominated for a Tony. She and Sidney Poitier were part of the touring production, which also included Dee and Davis. In his autobiography, Poitier said that Childress “encouraged me to explore the history of Black people … she was instrumental in my meeting and getting to know the remarkable Paul Robeson.”  

Later, Childress, Davis, Dee, and Poitier would be blacklisted for their connections to Robeson and the ANT. This may be why none of them were tapped for roles in the 1958 Hollywood version of Anna Lucasta, which featured Sammy Davis Jr. and Eartha Kitt


Women in Theater

Childress and Poitier did not see eye-to-eye on everything. Poitier was among those Black people who argued that any play about Blacks and whites had to involve lynching or some other life-or-death situation.   

Childress saw things differently. Frustrated by the lack of roles for women in the theater, in 1949 she whipped out a one-act play called Florence that she wrote in a single day. It portrays a chance meeting between two women, one Black and one white, on a train bound for New York City.  

Florence is a Black woman who is on her way to New York to talk her daughter out of pursuing a career in theater. After a conversation with a white woman who suggests her daughter become a housemaid to a theater director, a furious Florence decides to encourage her daughter in her determination to succeed in theater. Although it was a small production, the play won recognition for Childress as a playwright.  

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Trouble in mind Alice Childress

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Becoming a Playwright 

In 1950, Childress wrote Just a Little Simple, based on Langston Hughes’s novel Simple Speaks His Mind. This was followed in 1952 by Gold Through the Trees, a musical for which Childress composed lyrics and orchestrated music.

It included a portrayal of Harriet Tubman working in a New Jersey laundry to pay for her trips to rescue enslaved people in the South; a depiction of a young Black man unjustly imprisoned for rape; and a scene in which three young South African activists meet to plan a campaign against apartheid.    

 Trouble in Mind opened off-Broadway in 1955. It was so successful that a Broadway opening was scheduled for 1957, but as described in my discussion of the play in another essay on this site, Childress was unwilling to make the revisions needed to create the unrealistic happy ending of racial harmony for this play, and the opening never took place. 


Attracting the Attention of the FBI 

Childress walked the walk and created characters who talked the talk. Though Childress never joined the Communist Party, the radical content of Childress’s work came to the attention of the FBI. In The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, Mary Helen Washington describes the detailed records the agency kept on Childress between 1951 and 1957.

Her teaching in leftist institutions, her efforts to raise money for South African resistance, her support for Paul Robeson (who lost his passport in the McCarthy era), and her involvement in numerous organizations demanding equality for African Americans (then regarded as subversive) are all carefully noted.  

Her commitment to her leftist principles went beyond her writing and her social activism. When her husband Alvin Childress accepted a role in the popular (and highly racist) television show Amos n’ Andy, she divorced him.  

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A Voice for Domestic Workers 

Childress took part in the rich cultural and political life of Harlem. Working on Paul Robeson’s newspaper Freedomshe shared an office with among others, the young Lorraine Hansberry. W.E.B. Du Bois had an office in the same building as well and she often saw him at work.  

Childress wrote more than thirty columns for Robeson’s Freedom. Writing in the voice of a fictional domestic worker named Mildred Johnson, Childress commented on all sorts of topics. She expressed support for Black History Month and South African freedom struggles, but she also expressed her views of her white employers.

These columns were expanded and collected into Like One of the Family, a collection of satirical and witty vignettes. While many of the vignettes and monologues of Family are funny, Mildred also argued for the need for public protest and for domestic workers to organize and unionize.    

Mildred keeps her independence by living in her own apartment and working for a number of different women. When one of them asks her to produce a medical certificate of good health (because she believes Black people are diseased), Mildred counters by requesting a similar certificate for every member of the household whose laundry she must handle.


A Prolific Writer 

In 1957, Childress married Nathan Woodard, a jazz musician. Childress and Woodard worked together on several plays and musicals, including the children’s musical Young Martin Luther King (1968) and Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (1987)—a tribute to Jackie “Moms” Mabley. 

Moms was commissioned by Childress’s friend Clarice Taylor, who had a recurring role as Bill Cosby’s mother on The Cosby Show and was well-received off-BroadwayUnfortunately, Childress and Taylor ended up in a copyright dispute in which Childress received $30,000 in damages. 

From 1966 through 1968, Childress was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She had been recommended for the fellowship by Tillie Olsen. While at the Radcliffe Institute, she worked on The African Garden, a play she described as being about “poor whites and poor blacks who have caught the most hell in life.”  

In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Childress began to think about writing for children. That was when she and her husband Woodard wrote Young Martin Luther King (originally titled Freedom Drum).  


Wedding Band

Her 1966 play, Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White was Childress’s most successful and controversial work. Her portrayal of a loving relationship between a Black woman and a white German American man in South Carolina during World War I was seen by some Black nationalists as a betrayal.

Childress, however, said that Wedding Band was “about Black women’s rights…The play shows society’s determination to hold the Black woman down…”  Wedding Band was performed in 1972 at the New York Shakespeare Festival with Ruby Dee as the lead. ABC offered a televised version a few years later, but eight network affiliates in southern states refused to air the production. 

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alice Childress a hero aint nothing but a sandwich

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A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich 

Her concern about reaching young people led to A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. This searing novel about a young heroin addict was highly praised as a “surprisingly exciting” use of the author’s “considerable dramatic talents to expose a segment of society seldom spoken of above a whisper” in the New York Times.  

Feminist literary critic Susan Koppelman Cornillon (Images of Women in Fiction) said that Hero “revolutionized writing for young adults by introducing the nitty-gritty realities of urban life.” The American Library Association named Hero best Young Adult Book of 1975 and it was made into a feature film starring Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson in 1977.  

In 1993, she explained what gave her the idea for the title: 

I was down in Greenwich Village. I saw a man who looked like he was done in by drugs, leaning against a plate-glass window of a restaurant. And he’s weeping and about to go over. At the top of his head was a sign on the window that said,“A Hero.” Then he slid to the ground; the rest of it said “Sandwich, $1.50.” And I said to my companion, “We’re living in a time when a hero ain’t nothin’ but a sandwich.”   

In 1975, Hero became the subject of a lawsuit when a school district in Long Island, New York, ordered that Hero, along with several other books, be removed from school libraries. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1982, the Court ruled that libraries were places of “voluntary inquiry” and that the removal of books violated the First Amendment. 

 Childress later wrote two more novels aimed at younger readers: Rainbow Jordan (1981)about an adolescent girl abandoned by her mother, and Those Other People (1989)about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality.  


Final Years 

In 1984, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst named Childress Artist-in-Residence. She received a number of awards in the 1980s, including from Radcliffe College, the Harlem School for the Arts, and the NAACP.

She continued writing and speaking into the 1990s, received an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York, and received a tribute at the Langston Hughes Festival at New York’s City College. 

The death of her daughter of cancer in 1990 was a blow, but in 1992, Trouble in Mind opened in London to strong reviews. Her own health was failing by March 1994, when she was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.  

Alice Childress died of cancer in Queens, New York, on August 14, 1994. Her papers are in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.   

Contributed by Lynne Weiss: Lynne’s writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review; Brain, Child; The Common OnLine; the Ploughshares blog; the [PANK] blog; Wild Musette; Main Street Rag; and Radcliffe Magazine. She received an MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has won grants and residency awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Millay Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. She loves history, theater, and literature, and for many years, has earned her living by developing history and social studies materials for educational publishers. She lives outside Boston, where she is working on a novel set in Cornwall and London in the early 1930s. You can see more of her work at LynneWeiss.

More about Alice Childress

Major Works


  • Florence (1949)
  • Just a Little Simple (1950)
  • Gold Through the Trees (1952)
  • Trouble in Mind (1955)
  • Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (1966)
  • The Freedom Dream, later retitled Young Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)
  • String (1969)
  • Wine in the Wilderness (1969)
  • Mojo: A Black Love Story (1970)
  • When the Rattlesnake Sounds (1975)
  • Let’s Hear It for the Queen (1976)
  • Sea Island Song, later retitled Gullah (1977)
  • Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (1987)


  • Like One of the Family (1956)
  • A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973)
  • A Short Walk (1979)
  • Rainbow Jordan (1981)
  • Those Other People (1989)


Alice Childress by La Vinia Delois Jennings (1995)

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