William James successfully courted northern philanthropists for support to make Statesboro's first high school for African Americans a growing reality through the early 20th century and repeatedly served as a Georgia delegate to the Republican National Convention.
Those were facts thrown into high relief through research by James' descendants, who presented their findings during the Bulloch County Historical Society's final meeting of 2019, held Oct. 28.
Dr. Carolyne Lamar Jordan, William James' granddaughter, addressed some of her remarks to the William James Middle School and Statesboro High School students who were present to perform music for Historical Society members and guests.
"The Statesboro High and Industrial School has been passed down in our lives from generation to generation by stories told by the elder to the younger," Jordan said. "In the case of my three sisters and myself, we listened to these reminiscences of four of our aunts and uncles. I bet you have stories to tell like that."
Jordan, who holds a doctorate of education from Harvard University and retired from a career as a college administrator, was born in Augusta but now lives near Boston, Massachusetts. Her 50-year quest to learn more about her grandfather began April 4, 1968, she said. That was the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Jordan visited her mother.
"I said, 'Mama, they killed a great man. There'll never be another Martin Luther King,' and she replied, 'No, my child, there have been great men, and there will be more to come. My papa was a great man, so go open the door of that chifforobe over there, and bring me that scrapbook lying in there,'" Jordan recalled.
Her mother, Serena James Lamar, was one of the eight children of Professor William James, 1872–1935, and Julia Warthen James, 1880–1933. The scrapbook, compiled to that point by one of Jordan's aunts, contained pictures, announcements and newspaper stories about William James and his school.
Born in Jefferson County, James attained a bachelor's degree from Atlanta Baptist College, which is today Morehouse College. But he returned to help work the family farm before teaching first in Washington County and Johnson County. He married Julia Warthen in 1896, and they moved to Statesboro around 1907, according to the family's sources.
William James became principal of City Colored School in 1908. It stood at the site that is now the Zadie Lundy Douglas Little League Field in Luetta Moore Park. There had been multiple one-room school buildings when James arrived, but he immediately initiated a plan to build a unified school, Jordan said.
In 1910, it was renamed Statesboro High and Industrial School after James added an industrial arts program with an instructor from Tuskegee Institute. This program initially offered home economics and sewing classes for young women and farming and carpentry courses for young men. The school also hosted conferences, as early as 1914, for active farmers to receive advice from state agriculture specialists.
Another document she shared illustrated the school's 1934 curriculum, including physics, chemistry, biology, rhetoric and other college preparatory subjects, as well as vocational courses.
More than 500 students were eventually enrolled at the school, which in documents identified as Statesboro High Industrial School, without the "and." One such document was the diploma Serena James received in 1915, signed by her father as principal.
As a school with classes up to and including two high school grades, it drew students from well beyond Statesboro's city limits.
"Most individuals who were not fortunate enough to go to boarding schools farther off attended the high school in Statesboro, many of them walking as many as 10 to 15 miles," Jordan said.
This led to a demand for dormitories. For the first dormitory, built in 1913–15, James obtained the help of Emily Howland, a white, Quaker philanthropist from upstate New York. Howland's father was a wealthy apple farmer, and Howland herself became known for her support of schools for African American children.
Through research at Cornell University and at a museum established by the Howland family, Jordan has added to documentation of her grandfather's correspondence with Emily Howland. Twenty letters he wrote to her are known, Jordan said.
Jordan said she "struck gold" at the Howland museum when she found a photograph, which belongs to the museum, of William James standing in front of the dormitory in Statesboro.
The Knox and Crane families were other northern philanthropists from whom James obtained support. The Rosenwald, Slater and Jeanes Funds also provided some funding, as they did to other schools for African Americans.
"Now I want to tell you about his other life, just a little bit," Jordan said. "During this same period when he was doing all this fundraising, he began to enjoy more and more public prominence, and he was usually addressed as Professor James ... and being a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1912, 1916, and we just found at Savannah State (University), where so many have helped us, the record of he was there in 1920."
Her slides reproduced original documents proving this. She also credited Statesboro Regional Library for help obtaining local photographs.
Fire and recovery
On Nov. 10, 1924, the school's main buildings were destroyed by fire. When James led the successful effort to rebuild, he received a new kind of support. Jordan's source for some of her information on the fire and reconstruction was "A Century of Progress, 1866–1966," a book published by the newspaper that is now the Statesboro Herald.
"William James was able to command enough community support — not just northern, community support — for funds to build a new building, including a 700-seat auditorium, in 1925," she said. "That was greatly facilitated by letters from prominent Statesboro citizens, and I'm honored to say we have copies of those letters."
One example she showed was from a representative of the Sea Island Bank.
James remained principal until 1935, the year of his death, and the school was renamed William James High School in 1948. Other slides documented the school's contributions to the community's cultural life and the 1933 visit of renowned African American scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, who was hosted by the Jameses but spoke at then segregated, white South Georgia Teachers College, now Georgia Southern University, with black as well as white citizens in attendance.
Before Jordan spoke, Robert James Williams shared his genealogical research. After starting with William James' parents, Alfred and Rainey James, who were born in slavery in the 1830s, Williams traced the family tree forward from his great-grandparents, William and Julia James, through their eight children and 12 grandchildren.
He estimated they have about 50 descendants now living, with about 20 different surnames, living in 15 different states.
The day before Jordan and Williams presented their research to the Historical Society, at least 17 members of this far-extended family attended the society's Sunday afternoon unveiling of a historical marker, facing Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, at the campus site. Family members and Historical Society members also attended that Sunday's worship service at Historical First African Baptist Church, where the Jameses were members.
Students bring music
That Monday, the Statesboro Steel, a student steel drum band led by Statesboro High School band director Lee Collins, greeted Historical Society members and guests outside Pittman Park United Methodist Church.
Inside, the William James Middle School Band, directed by Melvin Hamilton, and the Statesboro High School Chorus, directed by Sergio Arreguin, performed before the luncheon and historical presentation.
Jordan had called Hayley Greene, public relations and marketing specialist for the Bulloch County Schools, in January with information about the family's William James Legacy Project. Greene put Jordan in touch with Historical Society leaders, who met with her, her husband Dr. Lawrence M. Jordan and two other family members during a March preliminary visit.
"As a history buff and genealogist for my own family, I am always passionate to learn about the history of other families," Greene said. "I have learned so much about William James and those who supported his efforts to ensure quality education opportunities for African Americans during a difficult time in our country's history."
Jordan is planning a book, and the family researchers continue to consider where best to preserve artifacts they have collected for future public access.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.