Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History

Sauer, Anne

Branco, Jessica

Bennett, John

Crowley, Zachary


Hairston, Jester, 1901-2000


Jester Hairston (1901-2000), A1929, H1972, was a talented musician, composer, and actor who appeared in such films as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and, most recently, "Being John Malkovich."

Hairston was born on July 9, 1901 in Belews Creek, North Carolina. His family soon moved to Pennsylvania, and Hairston spent his childhood outside of Pittsburgh. During high school, he worked in a brickyard to earn money for college, finally matriculating at the Massachusetts Agricultural School, now UMASS/Amherst, to study landscape architecture. After one year of schooling, Hairston realized he could not afford to go back. He moved to Boston, and for the next five years, he worked winters hauling coal, and waited tables on a Boston to York passenger boat during the summer. In 1926, Hairston was able to go back to Amherst, and it would be there that his singing talent would change the direction of his life. A local school teacher and choral accompanist named Anna Laura Kidder recognized Hairston's talent, and offered to loan him enough money to complete his education. Hairston applied to Tufts to study music, but was rejected. That summer, he met a 1927 Tufts graduate, who suggested that Hairston meet with Tufts music professor Leo Lewis. Hairston auditioned for Lewis on the front porch of Lewis' Professors Row home, and was immediately accepted to Tufts. After one semester, his singing talent earned him a full scholarship for the rest of his Tufts years.

After graduating in 1929, Hairston moved to New York City, where he spent two years at Juilliard before entering the workforce. After Juilliard, Hairston joined the Howell Johnson Negro Choir and developed a strong interest in spirituals. Soon, he was assistant director of the choir, and led the group on a trip to Hollywood to search out film roles. After auditioning for a few films, Hairston was hired to arrange the music and conduct the choir for the soundtrack of Dmitri Tiomkin's film "Lost Horizons." This film would jumpstart Hairston's career. He went on to write scores for numerous films, even composing a spiritual for use in the film "Lilies of the Field." In that film, Hairston's dubbed voice can be heard singing his song "Amen" while Sidney Poitier lip synchs.

Hairston also found success as an actor. For sixteen years, he was the voice of Leroy on Amos 'N' Andy, and he played a native in eight of the ten Tarzan films. Hairston also portrayed Brock Peters' father in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and acted in a number of John Wayne films. Most recently, Hairston appeared in the critically praised film "Being John Malkovich."

Hairston also gained fame for his work with the African American community. He traveled in the United States directing choirs, and was sent to Europe by the State Department twice, in 1961 and 1963, to instruct foreign groups in performing American folk songs. In 1965, he spent six months in Africa teaching children involved in different choirs. In recognition of his service to the country and to the world, Tufts University presented Hairston with an honorary degree in 1972, and with the Distinguished Service Award in 1990.

Hairston died of natural causes on January 18, 2000.

Source: VF

Subject terms:
  • The encyclopedia seeks to capture more than 150 years of Tufts' achievements, societal contributions and outstanding alumni and faculty in concise entries. As a source of accurate factual information, the Encyclopedia can be used by anyone interested in the history of Tufts and of the people who have made it the unique institution it is.
This object is in collection Subject Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
TARC Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights
View all images in this book
Numeric Entries
Dame, Lorin Low, 1838-1903
Dana, Charles A., 1881-1975
Dana Laboratory, 1963
Daniel Ounjian Prize in Economics,
Davies, Caroline Stodder, 1864-1939
Davies House, 1894
De Florez Prize in Human Engineering, 1964
de Pacheco, Kaye MacKinnon, ca. 1910-ca. 1985
Dean Hall, 1887-1963
Dean, Oliver, 1783-1871
Dearborn, Heman Allen, 1831-1897
Department of Anatomy and Cellular Biology, 1893
Department of Anesthesia, 1970
Department of Art and Art History, 1930
Department of Biochemistry, 1893
Department of Chemistry, 1882
Department of Community Health, 1930
Department of Dermatology, 1897
The Department of Economics, 1946
Department of Medicine, 1893
Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology
Department of Neurology, 1893
Department of Neuroscience, 1983
Department of Neurosurgery, 1951
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 1893
Department of Ophthamology, 1893
Department of Orthopedic Surgery, 1906
Department of Otolaryngology, 1895
Department of Pathology, 1893
Department of Pediatrics, 1930
Department of Pharmacology, 1915
Department of Physics and Astronomy, 1854
Department of Physiology, 1893
Department of Psychiatry, 1928
Department of Radiation Oncology, 1968
Department of Radiology, 1915
Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, 1955
Department of Surgery, 1893
Department of Urban and Environmental Policy, 1973
Department of Urology, 1910
Dental Health Sciences Building, 1969
Dewick, Cora Alma (Polk), 1875-1977
Dewick/MacPhie Dining Hall, 1959
Dickson Professorship of English and American History, 1913
Dirlam, Arland A., 1905-1979
Dog Cart, 1900
Dolbear, Amos Emerson, 1837-1910
Donald A. Cowdery Memorial Scholarship, 1946
Dr. Benjamin Andrews Professorship of Surgery, 1987
Dr. Philip E. A. Sheridan Prize, 1977
The Drug Bust, 1970
Dudley, Henry Watson, 1831-1906
Dugger, Edward Jr., 1919-75
Durkee, Frank W., 1861-1939
Durkee, Henrietta Noble Brown, 1871-1946
 List of Sources