Dorothy Sterling, a significant figure in 20th-century children’s literature for her lucid, well- researched portrayals of historical African Americans written decades before multiculturalism became mainstream, died Dec. 1 at her home in Wellfleet, Mass. She was 95.
A self-described accidental historian, Sterling wrote more than 35 books, among the best-known of which is “Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman.” Published in 1954 and still in print, it was one of the first full-length biographies of a historical black figure written for children.
The author drew attention to more obscure but important figures in “Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls” (1958), the first children’s biography of the slave who captured a Confederate gunboat during the Civil War. “The Making of an Afro-American: Martin Robinson Delany” (1971) helped stir interest in the little-known abolitionist, Harvard-educated physician and early proponent of black nationalism.
Sterling “was a major figure in the development of 20th-century children’s literature because she was one of the first people to insist upon the representation of African Americans in that literature,” said Julia Mickenberg, an American studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
In the mid-1960s, Sterling testified before a congressional committee headed by Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.) on racial bias in textbooks and helped form the Council on Interracial Books for Children, which worked to improve the portrayal of minorities in children’s books.
She also wrote for adults in books such as “We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century” (1984), an anthology of voices drawn from diaries, letters, literature and other records that the Christian Science Monitor said “read better than fiction and have the vividness of poetry”; and “Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley and the Politics of Antislavery” (1991), about a white abolitionist and social reformer who influenced suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone.
“The title of that book, ‘Ahead of Her Time,’ is the perfect description of Dorothy,” said Mary Helen Washington, a professor of African American literature at the University of Maryland at College Park, who knew Sterling for more than two decades. “She was the most extraordinary researcher I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Sterling, who was white, developed an interest in African American history after reading the works of such radical historians as Herbert Aptheker and W.E.B. Du Bois. In the 1940s, she was a Communist; later she said socialism was her long-term goal.
“I learned about Black history from the Left, and then I pursued it,” she told Mickenberg in the book “Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States.”
Born Nov. 23, 1913, in New York City, Sterling was a descendant of German Jews who came to the United States in the 1850s. As the daughter of a lawyer and a schoolteacher, she grew up in comfortable circumstances, entered Wellesley College when she was 16 and graduated from Barnard College in 1934.
She had wanted to become a botanist but switched to philosophy after a professor told her that the opportunities for a female botanist were extremely limited.
Her first job after college was writing reviews for Art News, a weekly magazine. When a new owner replaced all the women on staff with men, she joined the Federal Writers Project, a Depression-era work-relief program.
It was a life-changing experience for Sterling, who for the first time “met people who did not share my sheltered, middle-class background,” including aging Yiddish playwrights, Greenwich Village poets, black novelists and journalists.
Among the latter was her future husband, Philip Sterling, a newspaper writer who had lost his job early in the Depression. They were married from 1937 until his death in 1989.
She is survived by two children, Peter Sterling of Philadelphia and Anne Fausto-Sterling of Providence, R.I.; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
In 1941, Sterling began to work at Life magazine, first as a secretary and later as a researcher. She became an expert sleuth on subjects as varied as helicopters and ballet, but was not allowed to write the stories. In those days, she recalled in an essay for Contemporary Authors, “All writers were he. All researchers were she . . .”
She rose to become assistant chief of Life’s news bureau, but when her female boss was fired and replaced by a man, she decided to move on.
Her first published book, “Sophie and Her Puppies” (1951), chronicled the birth and development of a litter of dachshunds. It launched her on a series of notable books that explored science and the natural world, including books on caves, caterpillars, nocturnal creatures, mushrooms and ferns.
By 1953 she had published five books, but her years at Life had ingrained in her the notion that she was still only a researcher, not a writer. She decided that her next book would be a biography of a heroic woman “who would say to girls, ‘You are as strong and capable as boys.’ ” Someone suggested that she consider writing about Tubman.
“I was excited but also bewildered and angry,” she recalled some years ago. “Why had I never heard of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison?” With “Freedom Train,” she thought she had arrived as a writer. She wrote of the former slave as “a human being and a free woman.”
In 1957, she toured several Southern states to collect interviews with black children who were integrating white schools. Their stories of courage in the face of beatings and verbal harassment by hostile whites formed the basis of “Tender Warriors” (1958), a nonfiction book with photographer Myron Ehrenberg, and “Mary Jane” (1959), a novel.
She fought to publish “Mary Jane,” which portrayed the desegregation battle from the point of view of a black girl in a newly integrated school. Initially boycotted in the South and in some Northern cities, it eventually became a bestseller and was printed in several languages.
Sterling and her husband joined the NAACP in suburban Rye, N.Y., where they had moved after the births of their children, and helped to expose landlords who refused to rent to blacks. In 1961, after their college-student son joined the Freedom Riders in the South and was arrested in Jackson, Miss., someone burned a cross in their frontyard.
“It shook her up,” her daughter recalled last week, “but she seemed to bounce back from these things.”
Before the turbulent decade was over, Sterling wrote a history of the civil rights movement and a biography of abolitionist Lucretia Mott. A later work, “Black Foremothers: Three Lives” (1979), profiled three women: Ellen Craft, a runaway slave who became an abolitionist; Ida B. Wells, a radical journalist who crusaded against lynching; and Mary Church Terrell, a leading suffragist and peace activist.
“Dorothy,” said Jim Mairs, her longtime editor at W.W. Norton, “wrote about women who had her own characteristics.”
She completed her last book, a memoir called “Close to My Heart” (2005), when she was 90 and nearly blind.
Woo is a Times staff writer.