Role: Pioneering sports journalist.
“It is very seldom that the pioneer in any walk of life reaps the harvest from the seed he has sown. Ofttimes many of them even die without knowing the real good they have accomplished.”
—Lester Walton, New York Age, 1907
“He once was one of the best known sport writers American journalism had ever produced.”
—The Chicago Defender, 1965
Newspapers: St. Louis Globe-Democrat, St. Louis Star, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, New York Age, New York World, New York Herald-Tribune
When newspaperman Lester Aglar Walton began covering the nascent black basketball scene in pre-1910 New York City, he effectively scooped an entirely new genre of sports and became the country’s first full-time African American sportswriter.
Writing for the the New York Age, a nationally distributed black newspaper that was the largest such publication circulating in print at the time, Walton was instrumental in promoting African American participation in basketball during its earliest days of development among blacks. He also covered baseball and prizefighting.
In support of basketball, Walton used his insightful commentary, his thoughtful observation, and his passionate instigation to lead efforts calling for African Americans to take responsibility for their part in the stewardship of the relatively new sport.
The Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, New York, which had formed the first fully independent African American basketball team in 1906, benefited with Walton as a key media accomplice. He create widespread recognition for the club’s efforts as well as advocacy for the game of basketball itself.
To satisfy his readers, prod competition among the teams, increase his paper’s circulation, and generate additional advertising income, Walton began notifying the public that a Colored Basketball World’s Champion would be named annually by consensus among black sportswriters. This title helped bring a sense of legitimacy to the collective efforts of these teams—after all, the best white teams bestowed such world’s champion titles upon themselves in similar fashion.
Walton was also early to see the entertainment value of basketball and its possibilities for community building among African Americans, as well as the game’s potential for marking the steady advancement of his race.
At the time, in New York City, basketball was still considered a sport of the black social elite. So, he demanded good sportsmanship and appropriate behavior at all times, scolding anything less. “The class of people that supports basketball games played between our colored clubs does not attend to see a prize fight,” Walton reminded his readers after one roughly played game, “and young men of education and refinement should not so forget as to make themselves obnoxious.”
Walton was a life long champion of black causes and human rights. Beginning in 1913, he waged a long and ultimately successful campaign to have white newspapers like the New York Times spell the word “Negro” with a capital “N” and to eliminate the use of the word “negress” entirely. He also advocated for fair depiction of blacks on stage and in film, as well as balanced reporting of African Americans.
Walton’s activism and visibility eventually caught the eye of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1935 appointed him as the United States envoy and minister to Liberia.