James Reid Cole, academic, Confederate officer, educator, college administrator, and state representative, was born in Snow Creek, Stokes County, North Carolina, on November 17, 1839, the son of William Carter and Elizabeth (Murphy) Cole. James Cole's father died soon after James was born, and his mother died prior to 1844. Orphaned, Cole was raised by relations in Patrick County, Virginia, and Rockingham County, North Carolina. In 1851 Cole relocated with an older brother to Stokesburg, Stokes County, North Carolina. He was introduced here to the Methodist faith which he maintained throughout his life. In August 1853 Cole relocated again, this time to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he joined the Sons of Temperance in 1856. From 1857 through 1861 he attended Trinity College in Randolph County, North Carolina (now Duke University in Durham, North Carolina) and graduated with honors. While attending college Cole and a number of his classmates joined a local militia unit, the Guilford Greys, in response to John Brown's 1859 Harper's Ferry raid. In the summer of 1861 following the outbreak of the Civil War Cole joined the Confederate Army. He originally mustered into service with the Guilford Greys, but saw his first action—at the Battle of New Berne—as a sergeant in his brother's Company M of the Second North Carolina Cavalry Regiment. Through the balance of 1861 and most of 1862 James served in various North Carolina regiments. In October 1862 Cole was named adjutant for the Twenty-second North Carolina Cavalry Regiment. He remained with this unit for the remainder of the war, participating in various battles in the Virginia theatre—including Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville—and receiving promotion to colonel.
Following the war Cole spent time in North Carolina and Alabama, scouting with friends and relations for business opportunities. In the spring of 1866 Cole received a Master of Arts degree from Trinity College. Shortly afterward he immigrated to Texas, accepting a position as chair of the department of ancient languages at McKenzie College in Clarksville, Red River County. On May 5, 1868, James R. Cole married Mary P. King. This couple had five sons and four daughters. By 1870 he had left McKenzie College and relocated to Grayson County. Here he was elected as representative running as a moderate Democrat for Jack, Wise, and Grayson counties to the Twelfth Texas Legislature, in session from 1870 through 1871. During this legislature Cole sat on the Education Committee and participated in a special committee to investigate the management of the state insane asylum in Austin. In 1873 he served as enrolling clerk for the Thirteenth Texas Legislature. During this time he joined the Grange, a group devoted to the empowerment of agricultural interests.
Toward the end of the 1870s Cole abandoned politics and renewed his interest in education. In the summer of 1877 James Cole was chosen as president for the newly established North Texas Female College—later known as Kidd-Key College—in Sherman, Grayson County. He resigned in the summer of 1878 following the first graduation ceremonies of the college. Cole then accepted a position in November 1879 as chair of the English, Literature, and History departments at Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas—now Texas A&M University—in College Station. He remained prominent at this institution for the next several years, receiving appointment as acting president, permanent president, and chairman of the faculty by 1885. In that year he resigned to become superintendent of public schools in Abilene. James Cole continued in this position until 1889 when he relocated to Dallas. Here he assumed a prominent role in the academic life of the community. He established Cole's Classical and Military School of Dallas, serving as Conductor from 1889 until 1902. Cole then served as chair of the English, Literature, and History departments of Baptist University at Oak Cliff from 1902 until his retirement in 1905. James Reid Cole died in Dallas on October 28, 1917, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Cole was a Mason and a Knight of Pythias.