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Thomas James, 1804-1891
Life of Rev. Thomas James, by Himself
Rochester, NY: Post Express, 1886.


According to the Life of Rev. Thomas James, By Himself, Thomas James was born into slavery in Canajoharie, New York, in 1804. His master, farmer Asa Kimball, sold James's mother, brother, and older sister when James was only eight years old. James would be reunited with his brother many years later, but he never saw his sister or mother again. He never knew his father, and his only other sibling, a younger sister, died when James was young. After Asa Kimball was killed in a "runaway accident" when James was 17, James was sold to Cromwell Bartlett, a farmer, who quickly sold him to George H. Hess, a wealthy farmer (p. 5). After three months with Hess, who worked James hard and whipped him, James fled to Canada. Three months later, James returned to the U.S. He found work, learned to read with the help of a local teacher, and became a minister.

James begins his narrative by claiming that his life story is "a simple one, perhaps hardly worth the telling" (p. 3). Yet James recounts numerous adventures and perils in his short piece. He describes his childhood and young adulthood in two brief paragraphs, focusing his narrative on the period of his life after his escape to Canada and return to the U.S. James finds work as a wood chopper, an errand man, and a warehouse laborer. While working in a warehouse by the newly opened Erie Canal, James begins his education with a local man "who had opened a Sunday school of his own for colored youths" (p. 6). In 1823, James joins the African Methodist Episcopal Society and prepares for the ministry. When ordained in 1830, he takes the name Thomas James as he "had been called Tom as a slave and they called me Jim at the warehouse" (p. 7).

James' narrative often reads like a detailed list of experiences. He teaches "a school for colored children" in 1828; he begins "the first of a series of anti-slavery meetings" in 1833; and he helps buy a press to print The Rights of Man, the constitution and by-laws of his anti-slavery society (p. 7). Following the publication of The Rights, James is arrested "and subjected to a mock trial, with the object of scaring me into flight from the place" (p. 8). Undaunted, James remains in Rochester, giving speeches for his society in the surrounding area. In 1835, James leaves Rochester to preach in Syracuse. He is later transferred to Ithaca, New York; Sag Harbor, Long Island; and New Bedford, Massachusetts; founding or joining anti-slavery movements in each location. In New Bedford, James meets Frederick Douglass, who was "then a member of my church" (p. 8). James also responds to Rev. Mr. Jackson, a Baptist minister who supports the "passage of a law compelling free negroes to leave the state," by introducing a resolution that attacks "the great body of the American clergy" for their "deadly hostility to the Anti-Slavery movement" (p. 9).

Much of the remainder of Life describes James' anti-slavery activities, including his rescue of individuals who fled slavery, and his attempts to aid in the defense of the slaves aboard the Emstead [Amistad], after they mutiny and arrive on the Long Island Sound. His work becomes easier when he is transferred to Boston, where the public is more sympathetic to abolitionist ideas. He protests Jim Crow practices on trains by having a white friend purchase him a full-fare ticket for the train and refusing to yield when "baggagemen, and hackmen" attempt to move him to the Jim Crow car reserved for African Americans, who were only sold half-fare tickets (p. 15). After he is dragged off the train, he goes to a local judge to have those who pulled him off the train arrested. The local courts support the train company, but James takes the case to the State Supreme Court, which rules in his favor and awards him $300. His case "broke up the practice of consigning colored railway passengers to 'Jim Crow' cars" (p. 15). He uses similar methods of agitation and refusal aboard a steamer.

James returns to Rochester in 1856. In 1862, he is appointed by the American Missionary Society to "labor among the colored people of Tennessee and Louisiana," but he never reaches his appointment (p. 16). Instead, he and his daughter are harassed by "a party of forty Missouri ruffians" on the train to Kentucky (p. 17). He is assisted by "government officers and passengers from the next car," and when he reaches Louisville, "the government took me out of the hands of the Missionary Society," instead putting him in charge of "freed and refugee blacks" (p. 17). James serves under General Burbage and then General Palmer. He cares for those in the local camps and watches all the freed African American men get sworn into the United States Army. James travels the region and, under military orders, releases slaves from local slave pens and slave traders. His work puts his life in danger, and he notes that "During my first year and a half in Louisville, a guard was stationed at the door of my room every night, as a necessary precaution in view of the threats of violence of which I was the object" (p. 18).

James establishes a Sunday school and a day school at the camp. He also marries every "colored woman that came into camp to a soldier unless she objected," for "Congress had passed a law giving freedom to the wives and children of all colored soldiers and sailors" (p. 19). After escaping death multiple times, James is attacked by a "rebel," and although he survives, his right hand is "partially paralyzed and almost wholly useless to this day" (p. 21). Nevertheless, James continues his active work as an AME missionary and relief organizer for more than a decade.

James finally settles in Rochester, New York. His penultimate paragraph provides rare insight into his personal life: he marries in 1829 and has four children with his first wife, who dies in 1841. He remarries and calls his second wife the "companion of my old age." James offers blessings to God that he has "lived to see the liberation and the enfranchisement of the people of my color and blood," but offers a stern and final warning that freedom is not complete and that readers must not ignore the "social prejudices" that remain (p. 23).

Meredith Malburne

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