H. (Hallois) Rhett James, African-American Baptist pastor, college professor, and Dallas civic leader, son of Samuel Horace and Tannie Etta (Judkins) James, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 1, 1928. As the son of a Baptist minister, James experienced the life of a nomad during his early childhood. After leaving Baltimore, the James family made stops in Topeka, Kansas, and Nashville, Tennessee, before finally arriving in San Antonio, Texas, in 1940. After graduation from Phyllis Wheatley High School in San Antonio, James attended Virginia Union University in Richmond, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and sociology in 1950.
James returned to San Antonio for five years, where he taught elementary school, as well as at San Antonio Junior College. He also became the first African-American graduate student at Our Lady of the Lake College, where he received his master’s degree in education. In 1955 James returned to Virginia Union University to pursue his master of divinity degree, which he achieved in 1958. He also served as pastor of Moore Street Baptist Church in Richmond. In 1958 James moved to Dallas to become the head pastor at New Hope Baptist Church, a religious institution of great renown within Dallas’s African-American community.
James served as pastor of New Hope Baptist until his retirement in 1986. His time as pastor was marked by prosperity and improvement, as James moved the church from downtown Dallas to a new half-million-dollar facility at 5002 South Central Expressway in 1968. In addition to a new locale, the church experienced an increase in attendance, the addition of a new educational building, and the establishment of new organizations such as the Men’s Progressive League, the Women’s Progressive Club, and the Commission on Youth. James was also credited with improving the teaching and worship programs, as well as instituting shrewd budget reforms.
Although fully committed to his pastoral duties, James continued his pursuit of education as well. Immediately upon arriving in Dallas, he enrolled in the Graduate School of Theology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. In 1961 James became the first African American to receive a master’s of theology from TCU. After graduation, he worked as secretary of a committee that aimed to move Bishop College from Marshall, Texas, to Dallas, which was successfully accomplished in 1961. James taught at Bishop from 1961 until its closing in 1981, serving as associate professor of history and social sciences. James was also in charge of Bishop’s federal grant programs, director of church relations, and director of continuing education.
Just as Bishop College was closing, James was finishing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Texas at Arlington. After receiving his doctoral degree in 1981, Dr. James began teaching history at UTA and became the first African-American professor at the institution. James also taught at Mountainview Community College and Austin College in Sherman during his teaching career. Although James spent a great deal of time in higher education, he also worked closely with the Dallas Independent School District, serving as a staffing specialist and teaching recruiter from 1987 to 1994. He was also assistant principal of Arthur Kramer Elementary in 1994.
Although his educational commitments and pastoral duties would have been enough for many, James managed to carve out a notable civic and political legacy as well. When he arrived in Dallas in 1958, he served as the head of the educational committee for the Dallas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement Colored People; he served as president of the Dallas NAACP in 1962. James also made an unsuccessful run for Dallas school board in 1959, just as his predecessor at New Hope Baptist Church, Rev. Maynard H. Jackson, Sr., had done. Also following in Jackson’s footsteps, James fought the poll tax and the White Democratic primary, in an effort to give African Americans in Dallas a voice at the polls (see ELECTION LAWS). In addition to serving on the United Way board for nine years, James was also the first African American to serve as president of the Dallas County Community Action Committee. He gained some notoriety in 1961 for his picketing of H. L. Green Department store, as well as his effort to bring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Dallas in 1962.
James was also involved on the state and national level, especially during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In 1960 James was an executive member of the Dallas John F.Kennedy election committee, and in 1961 he was the Dallas head of John Connally’s gubernatorial campaign, a job offer that Lyndon Johnson personally asked James to take. In 1963 James traveled to the White House to attend the Emancipation Proclamation Centennial celebration, and during Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign he was the assistant director of the state re-election committee. In 1965 James was largely responsible for bringing LBJ’s “War on Poverty” program to Dallas. Navigating local resistance to federal funding, James became the first African-American president of a “War on Poverty” office. James also served as president of the Opportunities Industrialization Center in Dallas from 1976 to 1983. His book, Audacity to Survive, was published in 1994.
James married his wife Leora on April 15, 1949. Together they had one daughter and three sons. H. Rhett and Leora James divorced on November 7, 1991. He died in Dallas on March 14, 2004, leaving behind an impressive legacy that spanned the political, educational, and religious realms.