Reference Entry

James, Thomas (1804 - 1891), African Methodist Episcopal Clergy, Abolitionist, Slave Narrative Author

Floyd Ogburn

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
James, Thomas (1804 - 1891), African Methodist Episcopal Clergy, Abolitionist, Slave Narrative Author

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minister and abolitionist, was born a slave in Canajoharie, New York. As he recounts in his Life of Rev. Thomas James, by Himself, he was the third of four children, and at the tender age of eight he witnessed Asa Kimball, his owner, sell his mother, brother, and elder sister to slaveholders in Smithtown, New York. He never saw his mother and sister again, but he was reunited briefly many years later with his brother, who informed him that their mother had died in 1846. His youngest sister died when he was a youth, and he had never met or heard anything about his father. While living in Rochester he married a free slave in 1829 and had four children. After her death in 1841 he remarried in 1864, this time to a woman emancipated by General Sherman at the seizure of Atlanta.His third master having whipped him, James fled under cover of darkness on the path carved out for the Erie Canal, finally reaching Lockport, New York, where a black man pointed the way to the Canadian border. He crossed the Niagara to Canada by ferryboat at Youngstown, New York, and immediately found work as a laborer on the Welland Canal. Several months later he returned to the United States, worked briefly as a woodchopper, and in 1823, at age nineteen, moved to Rochester, New York. James learned to read in a Sunday school for black youths. However, while he worked in the warehouse of the Hudson and Erie Line (i.e., Erie Canal), he strengthened his reading skills so dramatically that he was placed in charge of the freight business.Also in 1823 James joined the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Society in Rochester and soon started preparation for the ministry. In 1830 he preached his first formal sermon and was ordained in May 1833. Since he had been called “Tom” as a slave and “Jim” at the warehouse, he selected “Rev. Thomas James” as his name at his ordination. In 1831 Judge Sampson, vice president of the local branch of the African Colonization Society, gave James a large quantity of antislavery literature.These documents became the catalyst for James's lifelong struggle in the antislavery movement for the freedom and equality of blacks across the world. With adamant support from abolitionists such as William Bloss and Dr. W. Smith, James organized Rochester's first antislavery society, created the antislavery journal The Rights of Man, purchased a printing press, and traveled the Rochester area in search of subscribers. These initiatives did not proceed without adversity, however. He frequently had to contend with angry mobs, frivolous arrests, and mock trials.James founded and pastored a black church in Syracuse in 1835 while also promoting antislavery initiatives. After approximately three years' service in Syracuse, he transferred to Ithaca, buying land and building a church two years after arrival. Thenceforth the Anti-Slavery Society sent him to Sag Harbor, Long Island, and New Bedford, Massachusetts. In New Bedford he met Frederick Douglass, who was new to freedom and public speaking. The AME Zion Church had granted Douglass permission to address publicly the slavery issue. Moreover, James licensed Douglass to preach, and he joined James's church momentarily, later becoming disillusioned with the church generically but not with Christianity.After two years in New Bedford, James took charge of a black church in Boston. During this time he labored long and unrelentingly to free runaway slaves, including William and Ellen Craft (1851), Anthony Burns (1852), and the slave girl Lucy, whose master seized her in Boston, invoking the Fugitive Slave Law.James returned to a pastorate in Rochester in 1856. During the Civil War the American Missionary Society summoned him in 1862 to pastor in Tennessee and Louisiana. However, he never reached either state, suddenly being redirected to Louisville, Kentucky, instead. James labored to free the homeless slaves interned within several camps on the periphery of the city. He established a Sunday and day school among the camps, meeting twice a week and on Sundays. Because Congress had legislated freedom to all black women and children of black soldiers and sailors who served the government, General William Jackson Palmer ordered James to marry every black woman in the camps to a black soldier. These marriages subverted the Fugitive Slave Law, which had no application in states like Kentucky that had not rebelled.For several months after the close of the Civil War, James served the black camps, hospital, and government stores. In June 1868 the General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Congregation elected him general superintendent and missionary. In 1878 he became a missionary preacher for black churches in Cincinnati, Ohio. Suffering from cataracts and facing imminent blindness, James concluded his pastoral service in Lockport, New York, at the African Methodist Episcopal Church.James finished his life and work where it had begun—Rochester. Though not as well known as Frederick Douglass, he arguably made Rochester one of the most important and successful penultimate stops on the Underground Railroad to Canada. In addition, his struggles for equal access to public accommodations presaged Rosa Parks and others like her.Perhaps his greatest role was that of sage; he observed that antislavery “agitation” had resulted in a peculiarly American civil rights phenomenon: “But now, that the end of the Anti-Slavery agitation has been fully accomplished, our white friends are inclined to leave us to our own resources, overlooking the fact that the social prejudices still close the trades against our youth, and that we are again as isolated as in the days before the wrongs of our race touched the heart of the American people” (James, 23).

Reference Entry.  961 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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