Black History Moment: Charles H. James



Another historical example involving African-American business and again, the historical period of reference is the period immediately after the end of the civil war and the emancipation of the slaves—the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  This time we’re in the state of West Virginia; a state which has never had a sizeable number of blacks and even today, African-Americans represent just barely over 3% of the population.  But, small numbers aren’t the determinate of whether or not one can be successful as proven by the 127 year old C. H. James & Company. Black Enterprise magazine calls the company the oldest African-American owned business in the country.

Again, just another amazing story against the backdrop of the racial climate of the early 1900’s.  This company was essentially a produce company started by Charles H. James and his two brothers who set up a trading operation to bring fresh farm produce into Charleston, West Virginia to sell and made a fortune in the process.  They did business with exclusively white customers—restaurants, hotels and coal mining company stores.   I just find this absolutely amazing as it stands in stark contrast to the racial conditions that existed.  There’s a interesting contrast here between Mr. James and Alonzo Herndon of Atlanta Life Insurance.  Herndon’s business was driven nearly exclusively by the results of racism and segregation while James’ business really wasn’t.  Both of these guys were niche players however, and simply figured out an area to operate in where they had a clear advantage.  In James’ case, his was one of the largest produce operations in his area.  Both of them along with Madam CJ Walker and Robert Abbot were contemporaries and all were members of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League.  Here’s a eulogy on him written by The Charleston Gazette upon his death in 1929:

It is with great regret that The Gazette records the passing of C.H. James.  He was one of the leading merchants of the city, and was a Negro of nationwide prominence.  He built up a business that carries his name through industry, ability of high order and scrupulous integrity.  Irrespective of color, C. H. James was held in high esteem by citizens of all walks of life.  He was a man who would have loomed large in any community………..

Here’s a writeup on C. H. James & Co from The Charleston Gazette that provides the history on this company.  The company continues today under the management of Charles H. James III.


The Charleston Gazette / January 25, 1988
Sandy Wells

More than 100 years ago, a young black foot peddler traipsed door to door, farm to farm, selling trinkets and notions from a pack strapped to his back. His hot item was a photograph of the slain president, James Garfield. Farmers paid with eggs or produce or maybe a chicken or two. He sold them to the city folks in Charleston, bought more trinkets and headed back to the hinterlands. Working with his brothers, he finally earned enough to buy a mule and a wagon, a department store on wheels. Eventually, he earned enough to open a real store on Quarrier Street. Then he opened a larger store on Summers Street.

By 1916 he had built a modern, three-story wholesale house on Virginia Street, complete with his own railroad siding. Trains brought him lettuce from California, apples from Washington, bananas from the port of Baltimore.

He built a sumptious 12-room home, complete with a lawn tennis court, in Charleston’s fashionable East End. He hired servants to help his wife run the house. A uniformed chauffeur drove his Pierce Arrow.

His name was Charles Howell James.

“My grandfather became a very wealthy man. I used to hear so much about my grandfather that all I knew was that I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.’

C.H. James II tells the story of the oldest black business in America, a $4 million family enterprise started by a pack peddler, then started again from scratch by the peddler’s manor-born son, clawing through the ruins of the Depression.

“Actually, my father should get more credit than my grandfather . My grandfather had nothing to lose because he started out with nothing. My father grew up in a wealthy family and had everything yanked out from under him. He was a brave man.’ His name was Edward L. James Sr.

In the dark months of 1929, unable to collect what was owed him, forced to give up the warehouse, the railroad siding, everything, 37-year-old Eddie James bought a battered truck on credit, put on overalls and set up shop in a tiny stall at the Patrick Street produce market.

He drove his rattletrap truck from farm to farm, picking up. eggs, rushing them back to town, earning a reputation as Charleston’s sole supplier of farm fresh eggs.

Finally, he earned enough to rent a warehouse with refrigerated space for eggs and dressed poultry, pens for chickens and a room to disembowel them. By 1939, he could send one daughter to prep school and another to Fisk University, one of the best black colleges in the country. By 1941, his firm had 10 employees and four shiny trucks He built a 10-room brick home and a summer cottage on an acre of land surrounded by tall hedges in Institute. He was invited to state dinners at the White House. He sent seven children through college. At the age of 74, he died in a car crash. He was driving a Mercedes.

“I never had the respect I should have had for my father until after he died. Many people who were brought up in his circumstances and lost everything just went to pieces. For my father to take this. humiliation, to get down to the nitty, grubby business of building us back up, that really took a lot of guts.’

The peddler’s grandson, chairman of a multimillion-dollar company, distributor of canned goods, frozen foods and produce,. middleman for 3 million pounds of poultry and 100,000 dozen eggs each year, remembers riding with his father in the delivery truck during the rebuilding years.

“My father truly started me on the ground floor. The first thing I did was ride around on the delivery truck with him and my brother, going from farm to farm to pick up eggs. Then, as I got to be maybe 14 or so and was able to take on more responsibility, my job was candling eggs. When they first started checking eggs for
quality, they would hold the egg up to a candle so they could see inside of it. By the time I got into it, they had electric bulbs. “I’d sit in a room and hold an egg up to the light and twist it. I could see the yoke roll around. Depending on the egg’s characteristics, I could tell if it was fresh or not. I did this egg after egg after egg. My salary was 25 cents a week. Then he started paying me 30 cents a case. I could make some big bucks on that in those days.’
He could dress a chicken with the best of them. “I’d stick them between my legs, take the neck and stick a knife in them and throw them in the flopping barrel and throw them in the salting tank and disembowel them. It didn’t bother me to do that because I had seen it all my life.’ Like his father and grandfather before him, C.H. James II met the challenges and made the changes responsible for the firm’s survival.

“When I started full time in 1957, we were doing a little over $700,000 a year. My price list was printed on a post card. Now we do over $4 million and my price list is 200 or 300 pages long with 3,000 items.’

When major food chains pushed mom-and-pop grocery stores out of business, it was C.H. James II who shifted to institutional customers, supplying canned goods, frozen foods and produce to hotels, hospitals and restaurants. “If we had just attempted to hang on to the independent grocery business, we wouldn’t be here.’ He majored in marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in the top 10 percent of his class, then. went straight into the family business. “I knew by the time I was 7 years old that I wanted to be a businessman in the tradition of my father and grandfather.’

Now his 29-year-old son, Charles H. James III, also a graduate of the Wharton School, is president of James Produce. “He had some lucrative offers from Chase Manhattan and Citicorp and some real estate companies starting at $60,000 a year, but this is what he wants to do. That strain of James was in him.’

In the 1860s, the James family operated barges on the James River in Virginia. “Our name probably came from the James River. It’s my understanding that they were not slaves, but indentured, and that they bought their freedom and went to Ohio and then to West Virginia.’

His great grandfather, Francis James, a teacher and minister, came to Malden from Ohio in 1865. He was the first minister of. Charleston’s First Baptist Church. “He was the first ordained black minister to come into West Virginia and probably the first public school teacher for blacks.’
His sons started selling trinkets and notions as pack peddlers . They bought a wagon and a mule, then a whole mule team, then horses and another wagon. “I’ve got a picture of my grandfather on a big wagon with four horses in front and a dog sitting on the seat beside him. That was his warehouse.

“You’ve seen movies of old peddlers in the west with these covered wagons with pots and pans and calico and hardware and trinkets and notions and medicines and all that kind of stuff and that’s exactly what they did.’
In the 1890s, business blossomed into a storefront on Quarrier Street. One brother left the country to start a construction business. One brother died. One brother was murdered. By the end of the decade when the store moved to Summers Street, the sign over the door read, simply, C.H. James.

A Dun & Bradstreet rating around 1910 showed his net worth at $9,000. “That was a lot of money back then.’
Eddie James came aboard, somewhat reluctantly, in 1916. He went to Howard University for two years, studying to be a doctor. His father needed him in the business, called him home and made him a partner. The sign changed to C.H. James & Son.

For more than a decade, until the Great Depression, father and son flourished, switching from retail to wholesale, moving to the new complex on Virginia Street.

“By this time we were among the largest, if not the largest, independent produce commission merchants in the state.’ Charles Howell James, peddler turned merchant prince, died in February of 1929, unaware of the brewing economic tragedy. “I often heard my father say that had my grandfather lived, because of his reputation and standing in the community, the company would have been able to survive.’ But even from the grave, C.H. James influenced the firm’s resurrection. When Eddie James started over, he went to Capitol Ford on Broad Street and told them he wanted to buy a truck. “He told them he didn’t have any money. They said, “Well, if you’re anything like your father, I know you will take care of it.’ So they let him have the truck.’

Proud of his gritty corporate heritage, the courage of Eddie James, the determination of the first C.H. James, the wisdom of the second C.H. James, inspired by a legacy of diligence and integrity, Charles Howell James III chose the company saga as the subject for his master’s thesis at Wharton.

He tells a story of perseverance, of adversity conquered by hard work, a strong sense of purpose and the willingness to change. “This has not been the story of great wealth, international business or jet setting that one might expect of an old, established American business family,’ he says in his thesis. “Instead, it has been a story of the American dream fulfilled for three generations
He writes about the fire that destroyed the family’s poultry plant in 1952, the subsequent city ordinance that kept them from building a new one. Change kept the company afloat. E.L. James started buying fresh-dressed poultry from a processor in Virginia. As small, local processors bit the dust, victims of stricter, costlyregulations, James Produce became the largest distributor of fresh-dressed poultry in the state.

He traces the move to larger quarters on Iowa Street in 1957, the move 16 years later to the big complex in Dunbar. He describes a lineage of doting family men, churchgoers and civic doers, quiet shakers and movers who lived comfortably, traveled internationally, rubbed elbows with national, state and local leaders, saw all their children graduate from college. “Each chief executive of the firm met his own version of adversity with courage and integrity and no scandal has ever fallen on the House of James
As the newest corporate steward, Charles Howell James III has kept the firm growing by adding lucrative federal contracts. The key to the future of America’s oldest black business is there on the boss’s desk _ a photograph of a smiling little boy, Charles H. James IV.

African-American history is far more than that of slavery and being victimized.  To be sure, that’s part of it, but there’s a far larger part.  There is a history of those of indomitable spirit who persevered in spite of the odds. I believe the series of posts here on these moments in our history focusing on the African-American entrepreneurial tradition demonstrate that.  I’ll be continuing to write about them as those of us who’ve taken the entrepreneurial plunge are standing on shoulders and I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize that. 

3 Responses to “Black History Moment: Charles H. James”
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  1. […] volatile times they experienced during their careers. C. H. James & Co was founded in 1883 by Charles H. James III’s great grandfather. The company was able to persevere through the 1900’s to present day which is […]

  2. […] a horse and wagon, to brick and mortar, to a warehouse. James and his two brothers in 1883 founded C.H. James & Co. as a trading company to get fresh produce in Charleston, West Virginia—at first, by trading […]

  3. […] a horse and wagon, to brick and mortar, to a warehouse. James and his two brothers in 1883 founded C.H. James & Co. as a trading company to get fresh produce in Charleston, West Virginia—at first, by trading […]

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