Dorothy Sterling, 95, a significant figure in 20th-century children's literature for her well-researched portrayals of historical black Americans written decades before multiculturalism became mainstream, died Dec. 1 at her home in Wellfleet, Mass.
A self-described accidental historian, Ms. 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 Robison Delany (1971) helped stir interest in the little-known abolitionist, Harvard-educated physician, and early proponent of black nationalism.
In the mid-1960s, Ms. Sterling testified before a congressional committee headed by U.S. 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.
Ms. Sterling, who was white, developed an interest in black American history after reading the works of radical historians such 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.
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.
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 Ms. 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 newspaperman who had lost his job early in the Depression. They were married from 1937 until his death in 1989.
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.
Ms. Sterling completed her last book, a memoir called Close to My Heart (2005), when she was 90 and nearly blind.
She is survived by two children, Peter Sterling of Philadelphia and Anne Fausto-Sterling of Providence, R.I.; two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
- Los Angeles Times