Willie R. James Sr., the man who helped pave the way for integration in Willingboro and who has a school in town named in his honor, died earlier this month at 95.
In 1958, when James, an Army officer stationed at Fort Dix, wanted to move his family to the new suburban community built by developer William Levitt, he was met with deed restrictions that barred blacks from buying a home.
Never one to back down from standing up for his rights, or those of others, according to his family, James filed a discrimination suit that made its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court and helped lead to the community being integrated. His family was among the first black families to make their homes in Willingboro.
“He took up for the family, for other causes of blacks,” said Archie James, his 75-year-old son, who still lives in the township.
Archie James recalled being taken along with his dad as he picketed at the old Holiday Lake off Route 130 when blacks were not permitted to use the recreational facility, or a nearby farm that was using migrant workers.
His dad was someone who stood up for the rights of those being discriminated against, said his son Fred James, 72, also of Willingboro.
Fred James said his father, who was born in Vidalia, Louisiana, on Sept. 13, 1920, was all too used to dealing with Jim Crow laws and discrimination throughout his life. When he was drafted into the Army in 1941, he was quick to let his superior officers know he could do more than sweep streets, he said.
Eventually, James was promoted to officer and worked in a criminal investigative unit, retiring from the Army in 1976 and moving on to a career in the private sector.
“He was driven to help people he felt were discriminated against,” Fred James said. “His personality was that of a man who wanted to see everyone with equal rights.”
James’ work in civil rights started in the late 1950s, and he served for a time as president of the NAACP’s Burlington County chapter.
Fred James recalled going to some of those meetings, and seeing his father’s passion for making sure everyone had opportunities, whether it be access to employment or housing or health care.
“We got involved because of Dad,” he said. “We did the picketing. We were on the front lines.”
James was also involved with welfare rights and organizations aimed at making sure minorities have access to health care. He also helped establish the Burlington County Community Action Program, a nonprofit that assists low-income residents.
Being involved in making things better for others was part of his father’s being, Fred James said.
“Coming out of the Deep South, we saw (discrimination) every day,” he said. “We thought the further north you got, the better it would get. It didn’t turn out to be exactly that way.”
James spoke of the atmosphere in Willingboro in the early 1960s, when there simply were not people in town who looked like him.
Archie James said his father was not “scared” to take a stand in the name of equality. Fred James said he will most miss his father’s determination to help others.
In addition to his social work, spirituality was an integral part of James’ life. Fred James, who is a reverend like his father, said church was always important.
James was a member of Wesley AME Zion Church in Burlington Township until he moved in 1973 to Rhode Island, where he became a pastor. When he returned to the area in 1999, he rejoined Wesley AME.
Source: Burlington County Times | Rose Krebs