Julius Lester (1939–2018)
Julius Lester, who spent considerable time in Arkansas as a child, was an author, musician, photographer, and civil-rights activist. A longtime educator, he was recognized by numerous organizations and institutions for his artistic and literary efforts.
Julius Lester was born on January 27, 1939, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Woodie Daniel Lester, who was a Methodist minister, and Julia Smith Lester. Lester spent his earliest years in Kansas City, Kansas, living there from 1941 to 1954. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1954 but spent most summers on the Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) farm of his grandmother, who was the daughter of a former slave and a German Jew. Her father had immigrated to the United States and settled in Pine Bluff, becoming a prosperous businessman. In 1960, Lester graduated from Nashville’s Fisk University with a degree in English, although he had always aspired to be a musician.
Following graduation, Lester went to New York City to pursue a career in music—singing, writing songs, and playing the banjo, guitar, clarinet, and piano. He recorded two albums of his own, while also performing with many prominent artists including Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Judy Collins. He also worked in broadcasting as an announcer, hosting a radio show from 1966 to 1973 and a television talk show from 1969 to 1971. During his time in New York, Lester also became active in the civil rights movement, serving as head of the photo department for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Over the course of his career, Julius Lester published more than forty books, including nonfiction, novels, poetry, and children’s books. He also published more than 200 essays and reviews in the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the New Republic. His numerous honors include the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and the Newbery Honor Medal for his 1968 book To Be a Slave, Coretta Scott King honors in 1983 for This Strange New Feeling and 1988 for The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, and the Coretta Scott King Award in 2006 for Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue. Lester was also a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award. His memoir, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, offers insights into his youthful times in Arkansas as well as his effort to connect with his Arkansas-based Jewish heritage.
In addition to being displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, his photographs have been featured in group and solo shows at the Massachusetts State House in Boston, at the Forbes Library at the University of Massachusetts, and as part of the permanent collection at Howard University in Washington DC.
Lester also had a long and distinguished teaching career. He taught at the New School for Social Research in New York from 1968 to 1970 before joining the faculty at University of Massachusetts (UMASS) at Amherst in 1971. At UMASS, Lester taught in both the history and the Judaic and Near Eastern studies departments before his retirement in 2003. He was the recipient of the university’s three most prestigious awards: the Distinguished Teacher’s Award, the Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, and the Chancellor’s Medal (the university’s highest honor).
Lester was twice married and divorced before marrying Milan Sabatini in 1995. He was the father of two sons and three daughters. Lester and his wife lived in western Massachusetts on twelve secluded acres until his death on January 18, 2018.
For additional information:
Fox, Margalit. “Julius Lester, Chronicler of Black America, Is Dead at 78.” New York Times, January 19, 2018. Online at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/obituaries/julius-lester-chronicler-of-black-america-is-dead-at-78.html (accessed January 20, 2018).
“Julius Lester.” Authors Guild. http://members.authorsguild.net/juliuslester/bio.htm (accessed May 11, 2017).
“Julius Lester.” Scholastic Authors. https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/authors/julius-lester/ (accessed May 11, 2017).
Lester, Julius. Lovesong: Becoming a Jew. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2013.
Oppenheimer, Joel. “The Soul That Wanders.” New York Times, January 31, 1988. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/31/books/the-soul-that-wanders.html (accessed May 11, 2017).
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated: 03/11/2020