Virginia Esther Hamilton was born on March 12, 1936, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Her maternal grandfather, Levi Perry, escaped slavery in the nineteenth-century American South by heading north to freedom on the Underground Railroad, making the treacherous crossing of the Ohio River. Eventually passing through the home of noted abolitionist John Rankin in Ripley, Ohio, Perry settled in the racially tolerant village of Yellow Springs, among the last stops on the Underground Railroad. Hamilton’s father and mother, Kenneth James and Etta Belle Perry Hamilton farmed on the Perry land, where Hamilton was born and raised, the youngest of five children. Following high school, Hamilton won a scholarship to nearby Antioch College, where she studied writing and began penning short stories.
Transferring to Ohio State University after three years at Antioch, she was encouraged by a professor to try her luck getting published in New York City. Beginning in 1955, Hamilton annually summered in New York, working as a bookkeeper to support herself while she attempted to advance her career as a writer. Leaving Ohio State in 1958, Hamilton permanently settled in New York and became active in the city’s arts community. It was through jazz artist Charles Mingus that Hamilton met her husband, the poet, and anthologist Arnold Adoff.
The couple was married in 1960 and had two children, Leigh and Jaime Levi, named after her grandfather. Together, the couple lived briefly in Europe, working in Spain and France on various writing projects. During this period, Hamilton and Adoff also traveled through North Africa, an experience that would leave a lasting impression on Hamilton and strongly influence several of her later books. Hamilton enrolled in the New School for Social Research in 1958, finishing her studies in 1960. On the advice of an instructor at the New School, she submitted a story she had written at Antioch to Macmillan, which was accepted and became the basis for her first young adult novel Zeely (1967). The work was well received by both critics and readers, marking the beginning of Hamilton’s prolific career as an author for young readers.
Since the publication of Zeely, Hamilton has received several prominent accolades, including the 1975 Newbery Medal, marking her as the first African American to win the prize, and the 1992 Hans Christian Andersen Award. Hamilton and Adoff eventually settled back in Yellow Springs, Ohio, returning to build a home on the Hamilton family’s farmland. On February 19, 2002, Hamilton died from breast cancer, though her legacy remains alive in the Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth held annually on the campus of Kent State University.