Biography: Vada Lee Easter

Vada Lee Easter in 1938Vada Lee Easter was born in St. Louis on Dec. 6, 1922 to parents who had relocated to the region from Texas. Her father Joseph Easter was a druggist/chemist at St. Louis’ Homer G. Phillips hospital for 35 years. Her mother Bennie Easter was a well-known piano teacher who operated her own music school and studio. Vada was an only child. Photo: Vada Lee Easter's senior photo in the Sumner High School Yearbook. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

Vada attended Charles H. Sumner High School from 1934 to 1938 and during those years she took piano lessons at Webster University (then Webster College), which offered a piano program for gifted youth in the region. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Stowe Teachers College (now Harris-Stowe University) as a part-time student and at Webster as a part-time student. She attended Webster from 1938 to 1940.

After leaving Webster, Vada completed her bachelor’s degree at Fisk College in 1942 and master’s at Chicago Musical College (now part of the University of Chicago) in 1946. She is listed as an instructor at Bennett College in North Carolina in 1944-1945, and as a teacher at her mother’s music school – the Easter School of Music- in 1945. Because of the outstanding talent she had that brought her to Webster’s attention, she was named an instructor of music at Howard University in 1946 but took a leave of absence in 1948 to pursue her doctoral degree. 

According to the 1950 US Census, she was listed as residing at the International House at the University of Chicago and in December of that year is recorded as having earned her Doctor of Fine Arts from the Chicago Musical College in 1950, making her the first Black American and the first women to do so from that University. Records show she completed post-doctoral studies in Ethnomusicology at Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and in Ethnomusicology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

In the summer of 1951, she completed a residency in Piano & Musicology at the Conservatoire de Musique in Fontainebleau, France and performed concertos around Europe but turned down an extended stay to return to Washington and resume teaching at Howard. She was named an assistant professor at Howard in 1949 but did not resume teaching there until she returned from Europe. She served as the acting head of the School of Music’s Department of History until 1953. She was promoted to an associate professor in 1955 in the School of Music, which became the College of Fine Arts in 1961. In the College, she taught musicology and the history of music, served as director of the African music project, taught in the Department of Applied Music, headed up the Non-Western Music project, and taught in the Department of Literature and Materials in the College.

In 1971 she was promoted to a full professorship and in 1972 was named dean of the College of Fine Arts, a position she retained until she resigned in 1976. She was an educator at Bowling Green State University in Ohio from 1978 to 1979. She returned to Howard in 1984 to serve as acting dean of the College and again was named dean in 1985 until she retired in 1991. In 1991, she was named dean emeritus.

She published the books “From Jumpstreet, A Story of Black Music: Secondary School Teaching Guide” in 1980, and “Introduction to Ethnic Music” in 1981. She also wrote the play “Mahalia’s Song” according to Howard University’s archives, but the publication date was not available.

Vada was married three times. She married chemist James Minor, Jr. in St. Louis in 1947. Records showing the dissolution date of that marriage were not found, but she married Virginia State University Professor Aldrich Adkins in 1952. By 1955, they had separated, and court records show a divorce being approved in 1960. In 1964, she married actor-playwright-director and Howard University professor James W. Butcher, records from the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library state. 

According to the Washington Post, she and her husband moved to Bowie, Maryland, after her second stint as dean. She continued her work in ethnomusicology and served as a consultant for an educational television series.  Her husband passed away in 1994. Easter died on April 28, 2016, 80 years after she first entered Webster University as a student.

Webster University would like to express its appreciation to Sonja N. Woods, the university archivist at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University and the rest of the staff there, as well as the staff at the Missouri Historical Society for helping track down many of the details in this biography. 

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