Historic Staff Spotlight: Josef C. James

We are taking a look at past staff and their many contributions to the National Archives throughout history. Today’s staff spotlight is on Josef C. James, the first African American Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Josef C. James—his friends called him JC—was born in Ocala, Florida, in 1915 and grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. He graduated from Talladega College, Alabama’s oldest private HBCU, then went on to earn his master’s degree from Boston University in 1938. Before serving in the Army from 1942 until 1946, James worked on the Massachusetts Historical Records Survey and as a history and government professor at Tennessee A&I University (now Tennessee State University).

James first came to the National Archives in 1946 to work on a secret World War II records project that President Truman asked the National Archives to prepare to document the experience of the U.S. Government during the war. This work led to the publication of the two-volume guide Federal Records of World War II in 1951. After working on this guide, James’s responsibilities included record description, reference, and accessions.

James soon moved to the National Archives Exhibits & Publications Branch, where he was working in 1961 when he left to become associate director of admissions at Howard University in Washington, DC. Colleagues at a good-bye luncheon lamented how sorely he would be missed. At the luncheon, Deputy Archivist Robert Bahmer spoke of James’s contributions to the National Archives and gave him a copy of Carl Sandburg’s multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln. 

After leaving Howard, James was program officer at the U.S. Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; Chief of the Division of Equal Educational Opportunities in the U.S. Office of Education; and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he researched school desegregation. 

James returned to the National Archives in 1971 to be the Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. He was the first African American director of that—or any—Presidential Library. When he became director, he said his priority was to make the library more than just a museum and use it as a place of learning for students. He also hoped to find time to research FDR’s “Black Cabinet,” the group of African Americans who served as informal public policy advisers to FDR and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

While James was director, the Eleanor Roosevelt Wings to the FDR Library opened in 1972. James also gave a lecture at the National Archives Conference on Federal Archives as Sources for Research on Afro-Americans in 1973 about the resources related to Black History that could be found within the Presidential Libraries.

James’s tenure as the FDR Library Director was cut short—two years after his appointment, he died of cancer. In a memorial, published in the American Archivist, James’s colleague and friend Harold Pinkett recalled their time in the Army together teaching in a segregated unit. He went on to remember James’s affable, resonant voice, eager smile, amiable demeanor, and his constant cordiality. Pinkett ended his memorial to James with the words ave atque vale (hail and farewell).

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