«Dr. Rhett H. James: An Oral History Interview Conducted by Bonnie Lovell Dallas, Texas December 21, 2002 Goals for Dallas Oral History Project ...»
Dr. Rhett H. James: An Oral
Conducted by Bonnie Lovell
December 21, 2002
Goals for Dallas Oral History Project
Krystel R. Manansal
Funded by a Grant from the Summerlee Foundation
Dallas Public Library
Copyright 2003 by Dallas Public Library
INTERVIEW WITH DR. H. RHETT JAMES
December 21, 2002
Bonnie Lovell: This is Bonnie Lovell interviewing Dr. H. Rhett James for the Dallas Public Library’s Oral History Project. The interview is taking place December 21, 2002, at Dr. James’s Dallas apartment. I am interviewing Dr. James to get his recollections about Goals for Dallas. I want to start with a little bit of biographical information about you. When and where were you born?
Rhett James: Baltimore, Maryland, in 1928.
Bonnie Lovell: What month and day?
Rhett James: December 1.
Bonnie Lovell: You just had a birthday. What does the “H” stand for?
Rhett James: I don’t use it. (Chuckle) Bonnie Lovell: You don’t even use H. Rhett?
Rhett James: It’s a name I have gotten rid of.
Bonnie Lovell: Okay, so you’re just Dr. Rhett James?
Rhett James: It’s Dr. H. Rhett James. I use the “H” initial.
Bonnie Lovell: But not the name.
-1Interview with James H. Rhett James: That’s right.
Lovell: So you won’t even tell me what the name is?
James: No, I don’t tell anybody. Social Security knows it; nobody else knows.
Lovell: Kind of like Harry S. Truman.
James: No. My mother had eight kids. I think when she got to me, she gave out.
(Chuckle) Lovell: (Chuckle) Tell me about your mother and father.
James: My mother was a Texan. She taught school for a couple of years, then she met my father and he never let her--she never went back to work-she never taught anymore. She’s a Judkins from out of Houston.
Lovell: Spell the last name.
James: J-U-D-K-I-N-S--Judkins--out of Houston. She was a housewife until he died in 1944; then she was a widow until she died in 1987.
Lovell: What did your father do?
James: My father was an educator-minister. He pastored several churches in several cities. I was born in Baltimore, where he was head of the NRA.
He worked for NRA, which was the [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt program--National Recovery Administration--and pastored Leadenhall Baptist Church there. Then he went to Kansas to Calvary Baptist [Church] in
Topeka, and from there he went to Nashville. He pastored in Nashville.
James: Baptist--all Baptist--and worked then at the college ministry at Tennessee A&I [Agricultural and Industrial] State College.
Lovell: What was his name?
James: Samuel Horace James.
Lovell: And what was your mother’s first name?
Lovell: You said you had a lot of brothers and sisters.
James: Yes, there were five boys and one girl. Two boys are deceased; there are
Lovell: It sounds like he moved around a lot during your early years.
James: Yes, in my early years he did. He moved to San Antonio from Nashville, and I call San Antonio home. We moved to San Antonio in 1940.
Lovell: Where did you go to school?
James: My grade school, I started in Topeka, Kansas, at elementary, and then
Lovell: Tell me about your college career.
James: I entered college at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, where I received my bachelor’s degree in sociology and English. I went
the Lake College graduate school, where I got my master’s of education.
In 1955, I went back to Virginia and taught at Virginia Union and worked on a master’s of divinity degree and stayed there three years and came to Dallas in 1958 and immediately enrolled in Texas Christian University graduate school of theology in Fort Worth. I was the first
UTA [University of Texas at Arlington] started a new program in urban administration. I knew several of the college professors over there--we had worked together on programs--urban programs--and they were looking for mature people who had worked in life and wanted to come
the graduate program for a Ph.D. degree. That was in 1974--1975--and I enrolled. I received my Ph.D. degree from UTA in 1981. I taught there
Lovell: What were you teaching?
James: The first black--I taught history at UTA in 1980. I taught at Austin College in Sherman, and I have taught at the University of Texas in Dallas--UTD. I taught race relations, and I taught, as of last year, at Mountain View College--sociology--here in Dallas.
Lovell: And all this time, you were also a pastor at the New Hope...?
James: I retired from the pastorate in 1986.
Lovell: But you were there almost thirty years?
James: Yes, I stayed there twenty-nine years. I built a whole institution there-over a million-dollar structure there--on 5002 South Central Expressway. We were downtown, and then the highway bought us out
Dallas public schools in 1981 when Bishop closed. They asked me to come in and work with what they called the programmatic remedies program, helping kids who were having difficulty in catching up in their reading and communication. I went there in 1981.
new program they had started. In 1987, I went into personnel. I was the staffing specialist for the public schools. Also, I was a teacher recruiter.
I traveled all over the United States and in other countries to find black teachers and other teachers to come to Dallas. I did that from 1987 to
[Arthur] Kramer Elementary School and two other schools and the Learning Center, and I retired from DISD [Dallas Independent School
Lovell: But you’re back at DISD?
James: Yes, I went back. I’m back doing some special work, yes.
Lovell: Is it part-time?
James: No, I’m full-time. At that time, they were recruiting persons who had retired to come back and do some special things for the district--because they were running short of teachers, especially in my field. And so two years ago--I’m in my second year back, and it’ll probably be my last
Lovell: When you say “your field,” your field sounds like it’s pretty...
James: It’s multiple, yes. I have a master’s in psychology and education. I have a master’s of divinity in psychology and history, and a master’s of theology in psychology. I did my Ph.D. in four fields: I did it in urban administration, urban systems, urban affairs, and sociology. So I have;
Lovell: So when you say “your field,” it covers a lot of fields.
James: Very eclectic. (Chuckle) Lovell: Were you in the military?
James: No. I missed the military. Thanks for that.
Lovell: You were married and have many children?
James: I married and have four children--four grown children. My oldest son works in Arlington; he’s an executive for some company over there--I forget the name of it. He finished SMU [Southern Methodist University]. My second son is head of food purchasing for the Dallas
Lovell: Oh, he followed in your footsteps.
James: My daughter is an attorney. She finished law school in Philadelphia-Temple University Law School, where her husband also finished the
same day. He received his medical degree from Temple. They have two grown children. One finished college last year, and one is finishing college this year. He’s going to be going to Hampton Institute-Hampton University--he’ll be graduating in May. She’s an attorney, but she also went back to school at the University of Chicago, and she’s finishing up her Ph.D. degree at the University of Chicago.
Lovell: Lots of educators.
James: Yes. She wanted to go on and do that, so she did it. They’re very successful. My youngest son is in television. He used to work as the program director for NBC New York, program director for Miami, Boston, where his wife was in Tufts Medical School, and he’s now in Atlanta, Georgia, with CNN--as one of the directors for CNN.
Lovell: Impressive. Well, you must be proud of them.
James: He finished North Texas State [University] in television--TV. He did an internship at Channel 4--where I was on television for eighteen years,
James: No, not the whole service. The choir would do two numbers, and I would give a small, short message. It was taped on a Saturday, and
became active in the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], and I was head of the NAACP Education Committee. At that time, we had a poll tax. I headed up the
Connally’s election. [Senator] Lyndon Johnson--I had met him on several occasions--I was in Washington one time and he said, “I need
Connally campaign in Dallas in 1961. In the meantime, [John F.] Kennedy was running for election. I was a member of the Kennedy executive committee here for Kennedy’s election in 1960, so I’ve been
assistant director of the state re-election committee for re-election of Johnson. You can see my mementos of Lyndon Johnson there [pointing to framed documents and photographs on the wall]. In those days, I visited at his ranch on several occasions. On one occasion he had African--ambassadors from around the world--visit his ranch, and I was
Emancipation Proclamation [centennial] celebration in 1963.
Lovell: That’s really exciting. What, in your observation, was Dallas like in the
James: Dallas was as segregated as any city you could find. But Dallas has always, I guess, had a kind of a peaceful acceptance of segregation.
Dallas never had an overt kind of antagonistic relationship. I have analyzed it and I have given the reason why there was so much passivity
in Dallas among blacks: Most of them came to Dallas from East Texas, where they were very docile in their relationships with whites in East
reason to raise any more Cain because they were making more money than they ever...they were still poor, but they were making more poor money than they ever were in their life. (Chuckle) Plus Dallas was very paternalistic--very paternalistic. I bought a home in 1963 in Shannon Estates off Mockingbird [Lane] and Inwood [Road]. That portion was being bought up by whites in University Park for their maids. They bought their homes for them. In my block, there were three houses that
Lovell: What street was that on?
James: 7042 Lark Lane. Lark Lane and Oriole Drive is where--my house is still there now--I did a lot of renovations on it and expanded it until our son graduated to an integrated high school--and I’ll tell you about that later-
Lovell: Oh, what year did they bus you in San Antonio?
James: They didn’t bus me; I had to ride a bus voluntarily to get to school-voluntary bus to get to the black school. Wheatley High School was way
Lovell: That’s because that was the only black high school?
Lovell: And so, your son--what year would that have been that your son...?
James: 1961. Oh, yes. So, what I did, I took him out of the public school and put him in Jesuit [College Preparatory School]. At that time, Jesuit was
private schools. Three boys went to Jesuit and my daughter went to Ursuline [Academy]. She finished Ursuline with the highest honor in
her class and was president of her class when she graduated.
Lovell: It’s interesting that they all went to private schools, but you’ve worked
Lovell: But is that any comment on DISD?
James: It was a comment on DISD because DISD was very segregated. Its leadership was very segregated and second- to third-class. I mean, I
Washington, and I just stood outside the door, and these teachers were just standing at the door just running their mouths talking, “Blah blah blah blah blah,” and they were going around asking, “Do you understand this?” They were just simple. Dialogue? Didn’t have any of that. So, anyway, I was very adamant about it--plus the fact that in 1961, I headed the committee to integrate the first Dallas schools. I went out-my committee went out--and found the kids, got them vaccinated, took the parents and had orientation sessions with them, and then took them to the first school--[William B.] Travis [Elementary School] up on
Ann German, and Clarence Laws. We were the main ramrodders of that operation, and we took them up there and got them in school--got all seven of those first kids enrolled in 1961, and Dallas was antiintegration of its schools. I never will forget when I came to Dallas after I had been asked to take over the NAACP Education Committee, so I
Dr. [Edwin L.] Rippy, who was chairman of the school board. We met down in Dr. White’s office and he said--I never will forget this--Dr.
White looked at us, and he said, “Well, I know what you’re here for, but