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Thu, 03.12.1936

A Writer of tradition, Virginia E. Hamilton

Virginia Hamilton

*Virginia Esther Hamilton was born on this date in 1936. A Black writer, from Yellow Springs, Ohio, she was the daughter of Kenneth James Hamilton and Etta Belle (Perry) Hamilton.

Her father was a musician and her mother a homemaker. Hamilton was the youngest of five children. She had two older sisters and two older brothers. Hamilton’s maternal grandfather, Levi Perry, was a fugitive slave who was sold as an infant with his mother.  He never knew his father. Levi’s mother helped him escape from bondage in 1857 from Virginia, when they fled to Ohio on the Underground Railroad. They settled in Yellow Springs, where they had a large family, including Hamilton’s mother Etta Belle. It was in this environment that Hamilton learned to appreciate stories and storytelling.

Hamilton lived a quiet, rural life exploring the countryside with her cousin Marleen, who was her best friend. They had the run of all the adjoining farms, which were owned by their aunts and uncles, whom they would stop to visit during their adventures. As a child, Hamilton attended a small country school where she excelled. She was the only Black girl in her class until she was in the seventh grade; it was in the seventh grade that she started writing.  She balanced this with running track and cheer-leading in high school. She graduated from high school with honors. Hamilton enrolled at Antioch and took writing courses from 1953 to 1956. She then transferred to Ohio State University to study literature where one of her professors advised her to go to New York to try to get published.

For a while, she went back and forth between OSU and New York. Finally, she decided to take her chance and try to make it in the Big Apple. She settled in the East Village where she found a job as a cost accountant for an engineering firm. Working mornings, she spent her free time writing. She also began attending literature classes at the New School for Social Research, where she met a number of other talented artists and writers, including Arnold Adoff, a poet, anthropologist, and teacher. Adoff and Hamilton were married on March 19, 1960. They traveled to Spain and North Africa providing an experience that had a profound effect on Hamilton and her writings. Adoff and Hamilton had two children together, their daughter Leigh Hamilton Adoff is an opera singer, and their son Jaime Levi Adoff is a rock musician.

In 1969, Hamilton and her family moved to Ohio and built a home on her family’s land in Yellow Springs. At that point, one of Hamilton’s friends from Antioch College, an editor for Macmillan Publishing Company asked Hamilton about a story she had written in college and suggested that she turn it into a book for children. It was called Zeely and was published in 1967.

It launched a successful career that has led to the publication of more than thirty books for children and young adults ranging from native African folklore to science fiction to biographies. Other reading include The Planet of Junior Brown (1951), The House of Dies Drear (1968), Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed (1985), The Mystery of Drear House: The Conclusion of the Dies Drear Chronicle (1987), Plain City (1993), Many Thousands Gone: African Americans From Slavery to Freedom (1993), Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales (1995).

Even her realistic novels include elements of dream, myth, history, and legend. Through her stories, Hamilton documents the rich heritage of African Americans, showcasing strong family ties, introducing distinctive and memorable characters, and weaving compelling stories. In 1995, she became the first writer of children’s books to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. A writer of excellence, Virginia E. Hamilton Adoff died in Dayton, Ohio of breast cancer in February 19, 2002.

Jet Magazine
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