Julius Lester speaks after receiving his Samuel Minot Jones Award for Local Literary Achievement. Photo courtesy of Jones Library, Amherst MA
African American, Literature, Children’s Folklore, Media, Documentary photography
Julius Lester was a dynamic writer whose career spanned multiple genres over several decades. He is especially acclaimed for his works about African American history and folklore for young people.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, Julius Lester was raised in both Kansas City and Nashville, Tennessee. His father, William, was a Methodist minister, who relayed southern Black folk traditions through his sermons and stories. Lester’s knowledge of these traditions was buttressed by the summers he spent in rural Arkansas with his grandmother. As a child he found a love of reading and music, having learned to play the guitar.
Lester received his BA in English from Fisk University in 1960. He moved to New York shortly after graduating from college and became active in the Civil Rights Movement, most notably as a folk musician. He recorded two folk music albums for Vanguard Records, Julius Lester (1966) and Departures (1967). In 1965, he published his first book, The Folksingers Guide to the 12-string Guitar as Played by Leadbelly, co-written with Pete Seeger. He also became involved in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) until 1969, serving as their head of photography. In this role, he traveled throughout the south to document the Civil Rights struggle with fellow SNCC member Worth Long. Lester’s photography from this period has been featured in several different exhibitions across the country.
Lester is best known for his dynamic writing career that spanned multiple genres across several decades. Although his many notable works for adults include Lookout Whitey, Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama (1968), among the first books about the Black Power movement by a participant, he is especially acclaimed for his writing for children and young adults. His works for young people largely engaged African American history and folklore. His debut work for young readers, To Be a Slave (1968), won a Newberry Medal and used actual slave narratives to explore the daily lives and inner feelings of enslaved people. Black Folktales (1969) was his first collection of African American folktales for young readers. In it, Lester employs his own voice to tell twelve African and African American stories. Lester’s other folklore-related works include How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? and Other Tales (1989), and John Henry (1999). Lester also published several collections of Bre’r Rabbit tales as told by Uncle Remus.
Lester was also a prolific essayist and reviewer who published over 200 articles in publications such as the New York Times, New Republic, and Village Voice. After teaching three years at the New School for Social Research, Lester became a heralded professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for 32 years, retiring in 2003.
Among his works presenting African American expressive culture are:
Black Folktales (1969)
The Knee-High Man and Other Tales (1972)