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Activist helped salvage the ghettos, win rights

When it came to civic responsibility, Chester James "didn't just talk. He did it,'' his granddaughter says.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- When Chester Lucius James Sr. had a section of the city named after him in 1974, he kept it a secret.

Telling even family members "would be like showin' off and gettin' a swollen head," James said after the African-American community Methodist Town was renamed Jamestown. "I let my doings speak for me."

He earned the NAACP's Distinguished Service award in 1963.

One year later, President Lyndon Johnson honored James for registering 1,000 voters. Lynnett James Hardy, 51, said her grandfather James showed "civic responsibility by his actions. He didn't just talk. He did it."

"I compare him to Moses, who struck water from a rock," resident Max Sidel said in 1970. "He approaches people and they melt."

"He was a champion," said James' daughter, Ella Mary Holmes, 83.

Born in 1884 near Ocala, James later struggled to balance school and work at his parents' farm, the Rev. Enoch Davis wrote. "I had to work a week and go to school a week," James said.

He arrived here in 1911 and a year later married Rachel Ella Daniels. The couple's first three children died at birth, but they later raised four offspring.

James never spared the rod and visited courtrooms and jails with his children to show them evil's path. "I had the meanest father in the United States," James' son Ralph once wrote with love.

James wore many hats: carpenter, doorman, porter, laborer and yard man. "I always keep busy doin' things," said James, who also owned a fruit stand and played music at churches.

When not tending the lawns of C. Perry Snell, George Gandy and others, James voluntarily cleaned Methodist Town's lots and streets. Hard work and education, he felt, was the salvation of the ghetto.

James helped maintain Methodist Town's first private school, and his wife's Foundation School (kindergarten to sixth grade) at 611 Second Ave. N. She later taught at their home at 317 11th St. N.

Students came from homes that white landlords neglected. Historian Karl Grismer called most Methodist Town structures "nothing but tumble-down shacks, hardly fit for cattle."

Decades of poverty, segregation and lynchings catapulted James into activism after his children were educated. "I made a vow I'd never interfere with my children's education," he said.

James frequently battled the City Council over Methodist Town improvements. The amiable, strong-willed activist often sought out potential black voters for registration on City Hall's steps.

In 1964, James earned a gold pin from President Johnson for registering 1,000 black voters. "He registered more people here than anybody," said Perkins T. Shelton, secretary of the NAACP's local branch.

After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, civil rights matters worsened. "Lots of people have the feeling that Negroes are gettin' more privileged, and they're sore about it," James said.

Unlike many blacks, James wasn't threatened or harmed, his daughter Ella Mary recalled. But he often carried a gun in a brown bag for protection. "Jim Crow had us way down in the well," said resident Paul Barco, 84.

During the four-month sanitation workers strike in 1968, James marched in protest. "He walked and didn't flinch," Ella Mary said. "He was so daring."

Shelton, who attended his first NAACP meeting here with James, said the activist "was in the forefront of ... the (area's) civil rights movement. His low-key approach was like that of (former NAACP director) Roy Wilkins."

In 1974, the City Council named James the honorary mayor of Methodist Town. That same year it venerated James by unanimously renaming the community.

"He didn't tell me a thing, Ella Mary said. "I saw it on the television."

James was asked to preside over the City Council in 1974, when it approved the construction of 65 Jamestown townhomes. "He proudly pounded the City Council gavel calling for the vote," the press reported.

The construction, completed in 1976, initiated a four-phase redevelopment plan. Today Jamestown is a city-owned 72-unit housing complex with a recreation center.

As James' "black hair turned to crinkled cotton," he continued fighting for human rights. Ella Mary feared that her father's overwork might cause a heart attack.

He died March 3, 1979, of congestive heart failure. He was 95.

"I still miss Chester James," Shelton sighed recently. "I reach back in my mind for advice he gave me. He was my mentor."

- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@gate.net.

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