With deep sadness, I write to share the news that Charles Lyman “Chuck” James, the Sara Lawrence Lightfoot Professor Emeritus of English Literature, died peacefully on March 15. He was 87.
Chuck, who served on the faculty for 32 years, is remembered as much for his rich knowledge of Black literature as for his selfless devotion to growing and sustaining the Black community on campus.
Chuck is survived by Jane, his wife of nearly 62 years and a longtime staff member who retired from the College’s ITS Department in 2005; daughters Sheilah and Terri; and two grandsons. A son, Scott, died in 1961. Plans for a memorial will be shared when they are available. In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes donations in Chuck’s memory to the Alzheimer’s Association.
I invite you to read more below about Chuck and his many lasting contributions to our community.
In Honor of Professor Emeritus of English Literature Chuck James
Charles L. James, the Sara Lawrence Lightfoot Professor Emeritus of English Literature, died Tuesday, March 15, at age 87. With his passing, Swarthmore has lost a principled and dedicated scholar and mentor. The College's first Black tenured faculty member, as well as the first Black department chair and division chair, James tirelessly served the Swarthmore community with compassion and integrity.
“Chuck James was a humane and brilliant colleague who steered our department as chair and played a pivotal role in the growth of our Black Studies Program,” says Associate Professor and Chair of English Literature Eric Song. “He went out of his way to mentor students and junior faculty.”
“Chuck was one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I’ve ever met,” says Professor Emerita of English Literature Nathalie Anderson. “He always had something particular — a compliment or a commiseration — that he wanted to share with you in his soft voice, something so generous that you leaned in eagerly to hear it.”
“He was never under any illusion about the racial history of this country,” says Phil Weinstein, the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor Emeritus of English Literature. “But what he did with that knowledge was the remarkable thing: He used it as a map rather than a weapon.”
James was born and raised in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., amidst the Great Depression. After high school, he enlisted and served two years in the U.S. Army, achieving the rank of sergeant. In 1960, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., officiated at his wedding. The following year, James earned a B.S. at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz.
Throughout the 1960s, James taught elementary school and high school English in the Spackenkill School District in Poughkeepsie. He also taught English at Dutchess County Community College before earning an M.S. at SUNY Albany in 1969. That year, James accepted a tenured position at SUNY Oneonta as an associate professor of English.
In 1972, James completed a period of research and study at Yale University while on a Danworth Foundation Post-Graduate Fellowship for Afro-American Studies. At Yale, he met and befriended the Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps, whose varied work and lived example would continue to inspire James and his scholarship.
The next year, James left upstate New York for Swarthmore’s English Literature Department. During his first campus visit, he interviewed with members of the Swarthmore African American Student Society (SASS) in the Black Cultural Center (BCC).
“It wasn’t odd for me to see those students have that kind of clout,” James said. “They had influence [and] were acknowledging their instrumental role in getting people like me and Kathryn [Morgan] here.”
When James and his family moved to Swarthmore, they lived in the Benjamin West House, and he joined Morgan and Jerome Wood, both in the History Department, as the only tenure-track African American professors on campus. Arriving a few years after SASS had advocated for significant changes in how the College recruited and supported Black students, he understood the urgency of those efforts.
Although a Black Studies Program had recently been established, James described its collection of unrelated courses as a “hodge podge” in a 1995 interview. For him, a Black Studies course should center the Black experience, particularly the Black creative experience, in meaningful ways that, “allow anybody who takes such a course to get a feel for the imagination and creativity that’s involved, and see how it relates to the American experience overall,” he said. “There are certain threads and elements that reveal themselves once we understand the nature of the relationship with the culture.”
Motivated by the lack of diversity in his department’s offerings and by his own desire to expose students to the richness of such works, he published the critical anthology From the Roots: Short Stories by Black Americans (1975). Over the years, he also published myriad articles on the Harlem Renaissance and received numerous fellowships and teaching awards.
“He brought to the English Department and Black Studies Program a vast knowledge of writers, from W. E. B. Du Bois to James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston to Toni Morrison,” says Craig Williamson, the Alfred H. and Peggi Bloom Professor of English Literature.
Indeed, James introduced courses on the Harlem Renaissance, the Black American Writer, and the Iconic Spirit, among others, as well as a Modern Black Fiction seminar that examined African and Caribbean literatures. As department chair, he also introduced journalism classes in response to student interest. However, James once acknowledged that he never took an African American literature course himself; when he was in school, he said, “no such animal existed.”
James’ own scholarship centered largely on Bontemps who, he said, “never suffered from familiarity.” Bontemps, the author of a diverse body of work, “traveled hopefully in every imaginable literary form,” James said, “chronicling the heritage of a race of Americans whose personal question may be ‘Who am I?’ and whose answers lay in their inscriptions upon the culture of our country.”
James studied Bontemps and his work extensively, including with support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and helped to bring some of his unpublished works into print. Perhaps not surprisingly, James also wrote admiringly of Bontemps’ devotion to family, and expressed interest in the extent to which the author “managed to balance domestic and aesthetic.”
“Scholarship for him was a conversation rather than a declaration,” Anderson says. “He mulled his way to understanding, and through kindness influenced many to be kinder.”
Provost and Dean of the Faculty Sarah Willie-LeBreton remembers James as “incredibly knowledgeable, always dapper, and very kind,” someone whose “insights about navigating life at Swarthmore were invaluable.”
Those insights came from hard-won experience. Particularly challenging was the period when the College had determined there would be no permanent coordinator for the Black Studies Program. The decision “was a blindside,” James said, “given to us in a committee meeting with little explanation.”
James, who had chaired a Black and Hispanic studies program at SUNY Oneonta, said when he had interviewed at Swarthmore that he would not do that kind of work again. But compelled and determined to ensure the program’s survival, James, along with Morgan and Wood, rotated coordinator duties among them — with no course release or any other diminishment of their already demanding responsibilities.
“We decided among ourselves that it's a program worth continuing and [we would do] whatever we needed to do to make it continue.” And they did, for more than 15 years.
“Black Studies at Swarthmore owes its existence to the students who demanded its creation,” says Professor of History Timothy Burke, “but in many ways it owes its persistence to Chuck, who had to hold it up as a viable and engaging program of study and research for a long period where he was one of the few Black faculty at the College.”
Another of James’ unmatched contributions is his work to establish and champion the now-Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) Program. Swarthmore was one of eight founding institutions chosen by the Mellon Foundation in 1988 to serve as a pipeline to diversify the professoriate. James directed the program from its inception until 2008 — notably three years after he retired.
“He would spend his summers personally calling every Swarthmore alum from the MMUF program to check up on all of them,” says Associate Professor of English Literature Anthony Foy, a former director of the program. “The strength and success of the current program owes much to Chuck's generosity of spirit, unwavering dedication, and wise leadership.”
To date, Swarthmore’s program has produced approximately 40 Ph.D. recipients, representing 25 percent of the College’s fellows. “I’m impressed with how the program has worked out for us,” James said. “I like the seductive aspect of it. It seduces by incentive, motivation, ... and some funds.”
Burke, with Professor of Religion Yvonne Chireau, interviewed James in 1995. “Listening to him reflect on his work at Swarthmore in that conversation,” he says, “I found myself drawn to Chuck's richly complex mixture of humane appreciation of his colleagues, students, and academia as a whole, his wide-ranging intellect and curiosity, and his tough but pragmatic insistence that the College could and must do better at meeting its obligations to faculty and students of color.”
James did more than his part. “Chuck and Jane provided wise counsel and advice to SASS around a host of issues,” says Dean of First-Year Students Karen Henry ’87. “They were at many of our meetings [and] you could count on them to also be present at our events.”
Seemingly all of the couple's joint efforts served the creation and fostering of the community. In addition to picnics in their backyard for graduating Black students, they also hosted dinners for colleagues and for students in James’ literature classes, with the students themselves preparing the food in their kitchen. Jazz usually played in the background.
Professor of Studio Art Syd Carpenter says James, a lifelong jazz aficionado, was “a strong voice and astute advocate of the arts” at Swarthmore, and “understood the importance of the visual, literary, and performing arts to the overall vitality of a liberal arts education.” He demonstrated this connection through “the depth of his teaching and enthusiastic support of the various exhibitions, readings, and performances on campus,” she says. “His annual trips with students to Harlem made the art and artists of the Harlem Renaissance vivid and tangible.”
“He and Jane were quiet, consistent, stalwart, and unequivocal supporters of not only Black Studies, but the Black Cultural Center, the ABC Program, the Chester Children's Chorus, and the Swarthmore Black Alumni Network,” says Willie-LeBreton. “They understood that these were pieces of a whole whose success would transform the College, the Ville, and the region.”
Given their decades-long partnership devoted in service to the College, it was only fitting that Chuck and Jane James received the BCC’s 1996–97 Kathryn L. Morgan Award. Students choose the winners of this award to honor faculty and staff members for their contributions to the College’s Black community.
In 2005, the BCC established the Chuck James Literary Prize. In his Baccalaureate address that year, James evoked the country’s racialized history and enjoined students to “engage the virtues of ethical intelligence” to address ongoing inequities.
“Chuck was a fine model for all of us of humane living,” says retired vice president Maurice Eldridge ’61. “With his open and kind heart and sense of humor, he was a great friend and a caring person who honored the right and decried the wrong.”
“Chuck possessed a set of quieter strengths whose value grew over time,” Weinstein says. “The College's indebtedness to him is beyond paying.”