Julius Lester - Biography
Julius Lester (born January 27, 1939) is an American author of books for children and adults, and taught for 32 years (1971–2003) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is also a photographer, as well as a musician who recorded two albums of folk music and original songs.
Early life and family
Born on January 27, 1939, in St. Louis, Missouri, Julius Lester is the son of Rev. W.D. Lester, a Methodist minister, and Julia (Smith) Lester. The family moved to Kansas City, Kansas in 1941, and to Nashville, Tennessee,in 1952. In 1960 he received his BA from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee with a major in English and minors in Art and Spanish.
In 1961 he moved to New York City where he married Joan Steinau. They had two children, Jody Simone (1965) and Malcolm Coltrane (1967). The couple divorced in 1970. Malcolm Lester coaches lacrosse and teaches English at St. Albans School in Washington DC.
New York years
During his New York years, Lester hosted a radio show on WBAI-FM (1968–1975), co-hosted a television show on Channel 13 for two years, taught a course on Afro-American history at the New School for Social Research, recorded two albums of traditional and original songs for Vanguard Records, "Julius Lester" (1966) and "Departures" (1967). A compilation of songs from both albums was released on a CD, "Dressed Like Freedom", on Ace Records in 2007. During this time, Lester became active in the civil rights movement, first as a folk singer at numerous civil rights rallies and as part of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. In 1966 he began working full time with SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) as a photographer and traveled to North Vietnam to document U.S. bombing of the country, something the U.S. government was denying at the time. That same year he traveled to Cuba where he and Stokely Carmichael spent three days traveling with Fidel Castro through the mountains of eastern Cuba.:)
In 1971 he began teaching in the Afro-American Studies department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He remained in that department until 1988 when, after differences with members of the department, he became a member of the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies department, where he remained until his retirement at the end of 2003. During his 32 years at the university, Lester taught courses in five departments: Comparative Literature ("Black and White Southern Fiction), English ("Religion in Western Literature), Afro-American Studies ("The Writings of W.E.B. DuBois"), ("Writings of James Baldwin"), ("Literature of the Harlem Renaissance"), ("Blacks and Jews: A Comparative Study"), and Judaic Studies ("Biblical Tales and Legends"), and ("The Writings of Elie Weisel"), History ("Social Change and the 1960s"), one of the university's largest and most popular courses. He was awarded all three of the university's most prestigious faculty 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. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education selected him as the Massachusetts State Professor of the Year.
In 1979 he married Alida Carolyn Fechner, who had a daughter, Elena Milad; the couple had a son, David Julius. The marriage ended in 1991. In 1995 he married Milan Sabatini; his stepdaughter from this marriage is performance artist Lián Amaris.
In 1982, Lester converted to Judaism. At the age of 7, he had learned that his maternal great-grandfather was a German Jew, Aldolph Altschul, who had lived in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where, every summer, Lester visited his grandmother, one of Adolph's daughters. He recounts the story of his spiritual odyssey to Judaism in his book, Lovesong. From 1988-1991, he was one of the cantors for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Congregation B'nai Israel, in Northampton, Mass. In 1992 he became lay leader of Beth El Synagogue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, until resigning in 2006.
Since 1968 Lester has written 43 books: 8 nonfiction, 30 children's books, 1 book of poetry and photographs (with David Gahr), and 3 adult novels. His very first book was an instructional book on how to play the 12-string guitar, co-authored with Pete Seeger. Among the awards his books have received are the Newbery Honor, Boston-Globe Horn Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, National Book Award finalist, ALA Notable Book, National Jewish Book Award finalist, National Book Critics Circle Honor Book, and The New York Times Outstanding Book Award. His books have been translated into 10 languages.
He has published more than 200 essays and book and film reviews for such publications as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Op-Ed page, The Boston Globe, Village Voice, New Republic, Moment, Forward and Dissent.
His photographs have been included in an exhibit of images from the civil rights movement at the Smithsonian Institution. He has had solo shows at the University of Massachusetts Student Union Gallery, the Forbes Library, Northampton, Mass., Valley Photo Center, Springfield, Mass., and the Robert Floyd Photography Gallery, Southampton, Mass.
- Newbery Honor, 1969, and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1971 both for To Be a Slave
- Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1972, and National Book Award finalist, 1973, both for The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History
- Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1973, for The Knee-high Man and Other Tales
- Coretta Scott King honor, 1983, for This Strange New Feeling, and 1988, for Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit
- Parents' Choice Story Book award, 1987, for The Tales of Uncle Remus, and 1990, for Further Tales of Uncle Remus
- Reading Magic Award, 1988, for More Tales of Uncle Remus
- Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, American Library Association Notable Book, and Caldecott Honor, all 1995, all for John Henry
- ALA Notable Book, 1996, for Sam and the Tigers.
- Coretta Scott King Award, 2006, for his novel Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue.
- Distinguished Teacher's Award, 1983–84
- Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, 1985
- National Professor of the Year Silver Medal Award, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, 1985
- Massachusetts State Professor of the Year and Gold Medal Award for National Professor of the Year, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, both 1986
- Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, 1986-87.
- "Julius Lester." Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 51. Gale Group, 2003.
- Lester, Julius. Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, 1988.
- Oppenheimer, Joel. "The Soul that Wanders", The New York Times. January 31, 1988.
- Weisnstein, Natalie. "Julius Lester: There's no magic formula' for blacks and Jews," J. February 16, 1996.
- Official Site
- University of Massachusetts faculty page on Lester
- Manuscript collection, Special Collections, Jones Library, MA.