This Day In History: July 9th
Jester Hairston was a choir conductor, music composer, actor and Goodwill Ambassador with a strong passion for Negro Spirituals. Over the course of his career, Hairston appeared in more than 20 productions and composed or arranged more than 300 spirituals.
Hairston was born on July 9, 1901, in Belews Creek, North Carolina. The Hairston family relocated to Pennsylvania, however, he grew up hearing stories from his grandmother about life in the south and working on a plantation. He enrolled in college at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts), but he did not complete his undergraduate experience until 1929. He developed a connection with Anna Laura Kidder, who helped him get the needed funding to finish school.
After graduating from Tufts University, Hairston moved to New York and studied music at the Juilliard School. Hairston later met Hall Johnson, who helped to grow his interest in Negro Spirituals. The Hall Johnson Choir was a popular group on the Broadway circuit and that allowed the performers to be part of the 1935 film, The Green Pastures. Hairston continued to find work in the Hollywood music and film scene for over 20 years. He also served as the choral director for Hollywood’s first integrated choir.
Hairston found himself in front of the camera and secured small roles in shows such as Amos ‘n Andy and Amen. Despite finding success in Hollywood, Hairston also continued to pursue his interest in spirituals. One of his most popular arrangements, “Amen,” was used in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field. During this time Hairston took on a new role as a US State Department-appointed Goodwill Ambassador. He spent the 1960s traveling around the world to inform people about the folk music of those who were enslaved. Hairston would host festivals for high school choirs to introduce them to the style of music and lead community performances.
Jester Hairston died at the age of 98 on January 18, 2000, in Los Angeles. His contributions to the arts throughout his career earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hairston was also awarded two honorary doctorates from The University of Massachusetts and Tufts University.