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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Discovering Rev. Rhett H. James: A lesser known civil rights leader

Civil Rights Movement; Minister, Reverend.  You might think of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., or if you listened in school, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, or Reverend C.K. Steele. We know these iconic figures of the Civil Rights Movement, and even the dates, cities, and events associated with them. Abernathy and the Montgomery bus boycott in the late 1950’s, C.K. Steele in Tallahassee, Florida, and Shuttlesworth and the infamous series of events in 1960’s Birmingham, Alabama. However, there were many other courageous men and women who played important roles within their communities. As an intern with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, I have been honored to process and produce a finding aid for the papers of one of these many courageous men:  Reverend H. Rhett James.

Reverend H. Rhett James was an ardent pastor, educator, and community activist, who played a role in Dallas during the Civil Rights era. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 1, 1928 and he received his early education in the public schools of Topeka, Kansas, Nashville, Tennessee and San Antonio, Texas. After graduating from the Phyllis Wheatley High School of San Antonio, Texas, he enrolled at Virginia Union University, Richmond Virginia. Upon graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology in 1950, he accepted a teaching position in the San Antonio Schools and at St. Phillips Jr. College. While in San Antonio, he was the first African-American to receive the Masters of Education Degree from Our Lady of the Lake College, in 1951.  An avid learner throughout his life, Rev. James earned a Masters of Divinity from Virginia Union University and his PH.D degree in Urban Administration from the University of Texas at Arlington.

Rev. H. Rhett James greets Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at unidentified event in 1962, photographer unknown.  Rev. H. Rhett James papers, gift of Gregory James.
He served as pastor of New Hope Baptist church in Dallas, Texas until his retirement in 1986.  While pastor of New Hope Baptist church, Reverend H. Rhett James also played a role in the Civil Rights movement in Dallas.  He headed scores of local organizations working for desegregation in his community, expanding democracy for African-Americans and human rights causes. He headed the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., founded and was a twelve year Board President of the Dallas Opportunities Industrialization center.

Reverend H. Rhett James died on March 14, 2004. Now, parts of his achievements and memory lie at the Anacostia Community Museum Archives amidst various other treasures. His papers date from 1962 to 2004, containing various materials – including photographs, an oral history interview, sermons featuring Jesse Jackson and correspondence with President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908 – 1973) and his administration.

I was blown away by the achievements of Rev. Rhett H. James!  By processing his papers, I feel I have taken part in helping increase public knowledge of a lesser known civil rights leader, minister and reverend.   

Sony Prosper
Summer 2013 Intern
Anacostia Community Museum Archives

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