Sepia toned map of Southeast Ohio
Claiming an Education: Early Black American Humanists

Writers & Storytellers Bring Black History, Black Lives to Literature and Stage

Virginia Hamilton


Virginia Hamilton, portrait

An Award-Winning Author: Internationally celebrated children’s book author Virginia Esther Hamilton was born and lived in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She was the author of over 41 books and the recipient of nearly every major award in her field, including the international Hans Christian Anderson Award and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for the body of her work. 

A Genius in Many Genres: She was the first children’s book author to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the first Black writer to receive the coveted Newbery Medal for children’s literature. She wrote works that explored and celebrated Black American experience in multiple genres, including folk tales, picture books, science fiction, mysteries, realistic novels, and a biography of W. E. B. DuBois. 


Virginia Hamilton with "Tricksters"
Virginia Hamitlon speaks at the 1997 Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth held annually at Kent State University since 1985. Courtesy of Kent State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives.

A Black Storyteller in Appalachia: Storytelling was a family tradition passed down from her grandfather, who escaped from enslavement across the Ohio River. Her first book, Zeely (1967), features a young Black girl who becomes entranced while summering on her uncle’s farm with a neighbor she believes to be a Watusi queen. Her 1974 novel, M. C. Higgins, the Great garnered numerous accolades, including the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award. It is a coming-of-age novel, set in the Appalachian Mountains in a fictional town ravaged by strip mining.

Learn more about Hamilton’s work at her website.

Zakes Mda


Zakes Mda, portrait

From South Africa to Athens: Born in South Africa in 1948, Zakes Mda (full name Zanesmvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda) is an acclaimed and prolific novelist, playwright, painter, and poet with several ties to Athens, Ohio. Mda earned an M.F.A. in Theater and an M.A. in Telecommunications from Ohio University. He was a Professor of English (Creative Writing) on the Athens campus 2011-2017. And he has two novels set in and around Athens: Cion (2006) and Rachel’s Blue (2014).  

Zakes Mda painting

Contributing to the World of Literature: His plays and fiction draw on African oral tradition, magical realism, and social and political satire, as well as other genres. Cion is the sequel to Mda’s 1995 novel, Ways of Dying, which focuses on a character named Toloki, who fashions himself as a “Professional Mourner.” The novel explores racial hatred, crime, and poverty in the post-apartheid era. In Cion, Toloki is transported to Athens, Ohio, and the nearby village of Kilvert (formerly Tablertown), a mixed racial community featured elsewhere in this exhibit. Here, Toloki encounters a local artisan’s quilt that becomes a portal to the history of enslavement and the quest for emancipation. Rachel’s Blue deals with sexual violence, focusing on a young white woman who is a street musician at the Athens Farmer’s market. Mda’s works have won numerous awards and have been translated into multiple languages. Zakes Mda holds a Ph.D. in Theater from the University of Cape Town and honorary degrees from multiple universities, in recognition of his contributions to literature worldwide.

Charles Smith


Charles Smith, portrait

A World-Renowned Playwright: Charles Smith is an internationally acclaimed playwright and a Distinguished Professor of playwriting at Ohio University. He has written over a dozen plays that have been produced off-Broadway and across the nation. He grew up on Chicago’s South Side and became entranced with the power of narrative after reading the Iliad; he went on to earn an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa and become a founding member of the Tony Award-winning Playwrights Ensemble at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.  

Dramatic Events and Historical Figures: Many of his works dramatize events and historical figures from Black history while addressing issues of racial discrimination, the struggle for emancipation, and racial justice. They include Objects in the Mirror (premiered 2016), which charts a Liberian refugee’s struggle for survival and identity in Australia, and Black Star Line (premiered 1996), which fictionalizes the story of Marcus Garvey, founder of the Back to Africa movement in the 1920s. 


Ohio University and Victory Gardens Theater world premiere of Free Man of Color, Chicago, IL. Photo: Liz Lauren. Actors, left to right: Gary Houston, Anthony Fleming III, and Shelley Delaney.
Ohio University and Victory Gardens Theater world premiere of Free Man of Color, Chicago, Illinois. Photo: Liz Lauren. Actors, left to right: Gary Houston, Anthony Fleming III, and Shelley Delaney.

A Special Commission: His play Free Man of Color dramatizes the life of John Newton Templeton (featured elsewhere in this exhibit), a freed person and the first Black man to graduate from Ohio University in 1828. It was commissioned by Ohio University to commemorate its Bicentennial Celebration in 2004.  

Smith has garnered two Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards, an Illinois Arts Council Governors Award, the National Black Theatre Festival’s August Wilson Playwriting Award, among many other accolades.

Learn more about Smith’s plays at his website.