The Bulloch County Historical Society hosted a special guest speaker Monday at its May lunchtime meeting. Highly esteemed and well-known in Bulloch County, William James stepped up to the podium to expound on his accomplishments in this area.
Well, actually, Mical Whitaker, the Averitt Center for the Arts Youth Theater director and a professor emeritus of theater at Georgia Southern University, reprised his role of James from an earlier performance for the Historical Society.
With a hat atop his head just like James wore in early photographs and speaking in character as James, Whitaker entertained and enlightened the audience with the rich history of James' profound effect on education in this county.
"My parents were hard-working tenant farmers," he said. "I was supposed to be a Christmas baby, but I came a little early. That's how I always was: I wanted to get up and go.
"My teachers said I attacked my lessons with enthusiasm and vigor. I had 'get up and go,' " he said.
In character, Whitaker explained how James taught school in other counties before coming to Bulloch County with his wife, Julia, in 1907.
"The African-Americans of Bulloch County understood that education would be a legacy for their future generations. Now, we were not by ourselves in this fervor for education. ... All over the country, black people, a generation or two from slavery, were yearning - yearning to be educated, to know how to read and write, to be able to write it down.
"The people in Statesboro had faith in me, and we went to work establishing the Statesboro Industrial and High School," he said.
With help from philanthropists like John H. Rockefeller, Julius Rosenwald and Anna T. Jeanes, the construction of African-American schools across Georgia and the hiring of black teachers in rural schools enabled James to see his dream come true.
"And so, with faith in God, hard, hard work and the benevolence of friends, our school was built and began matriculating students in 1907."
Whitaker, as James, continued, "I had spent the best years of my life in building this school, sometimes teaching all day with a very small salary and plowing by moonlight so that my friends and the students of the school might have food. With the help of my friends, I built a school for colored people, which I am proud of. It is the nearest and dearest thing to my heart - well, next to my family, that is.
"I lost my wife in the early '30s. She was 60. And at the age of 63, after undergoing a serious operation, I departed this earthly plane.
"My life? Running, running ahead, building bridges over the troubled waters of segregation and ignorance; making a way for people who had no way. I feel that I fought the good fight as a man and an educator, heralding the realities and the promises of a new century. Truly, I lived in mind-bending, culture-shifting, revolutionary times.
"And you know, I kinda believed him when he said, 'Well done, William James.' "