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Mary Helen Tatum Lester, a seamstress and cashier, dies at 93

Mrs. Lester, who sewed dashikis that were sold at her former husband's barber shop, died Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020 in Newark, Del.

Mary Helen Tatum Lester
Mary Helen Tatum LesterRead moreCourtesy the Lester Family

Mary Helen Tatum Lester, 93, a seamstress whose African-inspired dashikis were once sold in her husband’s West Philadelphia barbershop, died of cancer Wednesday, Sept. 30 at her son’s home in Newark, Del.

Her death came two days before her 94th birthday.

Mrs. Lester had been living in a Yeadon nursing home in April when she was diagnosed with COVID-19. She survived and was declared COVID-free in June, said her daughter, Denise King. But a couple of months later, in August, doctors diagnosed her with terminal cancer.

Afterward, the family moved her to her son’s home so they could be at her side.

“My mother was one of the strongest people that I’ve ever known,” King said.

“My father was the wind beneath my wings, but my mother gave me the strength to endure the flight.”

Mrs. Lester was born in Elkhart, Texas, in 1926, the eighth of 10 children of James Herbert Tatum and Alice Heard Tatum.

When she was about 11, the family moved to Carrollton, Ga. During high school, she met a fellow student, Walden Sybel Lester, whom she married after graduation in 1944.

By the early 1950s, the couple and their 3-year-old daughter moved to Philadelphia. Mr. Lester enrolled in Cheyney State Collegeto become a teacher.

He also opened the Southside Barber Shop, near 56th and Spruce, which he operated during the afternoons, evenings and on weekends.

For years, Mrs. Lester stayed home to care for a family that would grow to five children. They lived in West Philadelphia.

She loved to sew, her daughter said: “She was a great seamstress; she sewed most of my clothes when I was in junior high school."

King’s father asked her mother to sew dashikis, the West African shirts many young people wore in the 1960s, and he sold them at his barber shop, which became a hub for young activists.

In July 1963, Mr. Lester wrote a letter to W.E.B. DuBois, the sociologist and cofounder of the NAACP, who had moved to Ghana. The letter is among the DuBois Papers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

In 1972, the Lester family suffered a tragedy when their son Carlton was killed at 16.


“It was devastating to all of us," King said. But she said she never saw her mother cry, nor did she talk about it. "I know she was trying to be strong for us.

“Her thing was to keep us safe, especially my brothers. After my brother was killed, she sent my youngest brother, who was 13 or 14, to live in Ohio with her brother..”

After 43 years of marriage, the Lesters divorced in 1987, their daughter said. He died in 1990.

As her children got older, Mrs. Lester worked as a cashier in Center City office buildings where companies like Aramark and Stouffer’s operated cafeterias or restaurants.

She had been a member of Beulah Baptist Church in West Philadelphia for 40 years.

In addition to sewing, Mrs. Lester liked to crochet blankets, hats and scarves for relatives and friends. She was also a good cook and “a house gardener,” who filled her home with plants.

“She could stick a Popsicle stick in the dirt, and it would grow flowers,” King said.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Lester is survived by another daughter, Marilyn; two sons, Wyman and Anthony; 10 grandchildren; several great-grandchildren; one brother; and many other relatives and friends.

Funeral services were Friday, Oct. 9.