Two “Jules” in the Pioneer Valley

AHF Recognizes Black History Month
During February, we will feature a series of blog posts focusing on Black History Month. Please join us in the discussion and comment with your own opinions and tales.

Written by Bob Stewart, AHF’s executive director

I was fortunate to finish my k-12 education in Tuscaloosa as desegregation was well under way—and largely without any serious incidents—throughout the city school system. My classes had included black students since about my 8th-grade year in 1966-67.

Nevertheless, when I arrived at Amherst College in 1971, I encountered a far more open educational environment than even the most progressive ones in Alabama. The staunch abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher co-founded the college in 1821. Edward Jones, a free biracial man from Charleston, South Carolina, graduated from the college in 1826 and went on to serve as a missionary in the colony of Sierra Leone. All the campus fraternities had integrated in the 1960s, many of which lost their national affiliation in so doing. Racial integration was fundamentally established in policy and practice (if not in large numbers of African-American students).

Yet I recall that the most prominent African Americans at that time in the surrounding Pioneer Valley were not at Amherst College, but instead a couple of miles up the road at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. I just missed the chance to be in the same building with one of them; I was privileged to be in the same classroom with the other. Both were named Julius.

Julius Erving was born and raised in Roosevelt, New York, where he played basketball and reportedly received the nickname “Doctor” or “Dr. J” from a high school friend. Erving enrolled at UMass in 1968, though he didn’t finally earn his bachelor’s degree until 1986. In two varsity seasons at UMass, he averaged 32.5 points and 20.2 rebounds per game, becoming one of only five college players in history to average more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game. His basketball feats were legendary. Too bad he left for the professional ranks the year before I arrived in Amherst.

But in 1974 I had the opportunity to attend a class at UMass on the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, taught by the multi-talented black intellectual and cultural icon, Julius Lester. Lester had already achieved fame in New York as a teacher, folk singer and television host. As a member of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) he participated in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. In 1966 he traveled as a photographer to North Vietnam and as a companion of Stokely Carmichael and Fidel Castro in Cuba. But his interests lay more in art, music and writing than in politics. By the time I enrolled in his seminar, Lester had converted to Judaism and was a distinguished faculty member. He had also launched a prolific writing career. He eventually published dozens of books ranging from fiction to folk tales to children’s books.

Dr. J’s accomplishments on the basketball court are etched forever in the record books, the Basketball Hall of Fame and ESPN film archives. I really wish I had had the chance to see him play in college. But maybe one day someone will start handing out MVPs in the humanities. When that happens I will be proud to say that for one semester I indeed had the chance to share the “bench” with an all-star in his own right—the other African American in town named Julius.