afternoon, amid two days dedicated to the legacy of Statesboro’s pioneering
African American educator William James, more than 15 of his descendants from
several states attended the Bulloch County Historical Society’s unveiling of
the Statesboro High and Industrial School marker.
The Historical Society had this, the 25th marker it has placed, made by Sewah Studios in Marietta, Ohio. Like the other markers, it carries the Historical Society’s logo at top, on a tobacco-brown coating over cast aluminum with raised lettering in 24-carat gold leaf and was purchased with funds from the Jack N. and Addie D. Averitt Foundation.
This particular marker, outside the Zadie Lundy Douglas Little League Field across from the community center in Luetta Moore Park, carries more historical information than some. The description of William James’ life, the school of which he was founding principal for 28 years and his broader impact in the community covers both sides.
“I told this morning at church how difficult it is to condense a lifetime of so many accomplishments, such as what Professor James did, into … 20 lines of the front, 20 lines on the back,” said Virginia Anne Waters, executive director of the Bulloch County Historical Society.
Historical Society members and James’ descendants had attended the 11 a.m. worship service at Historical First African Baptist Church, across a street on the other side of the Little League field. William James and his wife were active in that church around a century ago, when their home was nearby on Church Street.
Virginia Anne Waters’ husband, Bill Waters, chairs the society’s marker committee and digs the post holes. He also read the entire text aloud during Sunday’s dedication.
“The African American community's vision to organize a high school for their children in Bulloch County took shape in 1905 when a group of citizens purchased land at this site. The facility that opened in 1908 became known as the City Colored School, with educator William James (1872-1935), who had attended Atlanta Baptist Seminary (now Morehouse College), serving as head. …” states a passage from the opening paragraph.
Other sources show that the school was renamed Statesboro High and Industrial School in 1910. William James remained its principal until 1935, the year of his death. The school was renamed William James High School in 1948.
The marker names philanthropists and foundations from whom James successfully obtained funding to build and expand the school, which included dormitories. A 1924 fire destroyed two of the buildings, but the “school re-emerged through community fundraising efforts and by 1930 was one of the few accredited high schools for African Americans in Georgia,” the marker’s text continues.
On the reverse, the marker states that the school “enhanced the city’s cultural life by sponsoring guest lecturers and artists in concert, notably violinist Joseph Douglass, grandson of Frederick Douglass, and concert pianist Hazel Harrison” It notes that the Jameses, in 1933, hosted renowned scientist George Washington Carver in their home during his visit to Statesboro.
At least 17 of William and Julia James’ descendants, from as near as Augusta and as far away as Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts, attended Sunday’s events, which included the church service, the marker dedication and the reception afterward inside the community center.
Exhibiting the value this extended family has placed on education, the visiting group included relatives with advanced degrees from Harvard, Yale, Howard and Princeton, among other prestigious universities.
Grandson and namesake William James, 74, was born in Augusta but now lives in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. He attained a juris doctorate from Howard University Law School and taught and served as a law librarian at universities in several states before retirement.
He was there with his sisters Georgene James Caldwell, a retired public school teacher from Augusta and Martina James Bryant, Ed.D., a retired Duke University dean who resides in North Carolina.
“It’s something that we’ve been looking forward to for quite a while,” Bryant said, “and it’s always good to see family that we don’t see often because we’re so widespread, and to get a few little details. You know an overview of things, but then you hear little details in terms of dates and things.”
Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar and Chairman Roy Thompson of the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners presented proclamations from the city and county governments. Sen. Jack Hill delivered a state legislative resolution saluting the work of the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center, which preserves area African American history and has a William James exhibit at the historic Willow Hill School near Portal.
McCollar, Statesboro’s first black mayor, added some remarks of his own about what William James accomplished as an African American man pushing forward the education of black children in the post-Civil War South.
“If we could roll back the hands of time, we have to recognize that what he did was not easy. …,” McCollar said. “All these decades later it’s easy for us to stand in front of the monument and read from the documents, but we can only imagine the turmoil that he went through every single day to make that vision happen.”