Born October 1, 1944 in Edinburgh, Mississippi, James
Thomas Stewart, like others of his generation, was on
the fast track toward the civil rights renaissance of
the 1960s. That today he is dean of student development
at Bethel College in McKenzie is testimony to the
success of the struggles of that era and hope for
future generations of Americans.
"I was born in the same place as Faith Hill; that's
what we have in common," quips Stewart in apparent
contrast of the popular blonde country singer with his
own complicated rise to success through years of
hard-won battles for equality.
James was the fifth of eight children (four girls and
four boys) born to Bennie M. and Lossie M. Stewart. "I
came up learning how to share," he grins.
His middle name gave him roots to his maternal
grandfather, Abraham Thomas.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, he recalls
with a dull flash of irony in his dark eyes, "the white
kids caught the bus going to one school and the black
kids caught the bus going to another school. If we
missed the bus we had a three mile walk right past
"When I was growing up in Mississippi it was probably
not the best of times," he continues. "It was a time
when the schools were segregated and I can recall when
I was in the tenth grade the school I attended didn't
have enough math books."
Always resourceful, however, James mowed lawns for
extra money and was fortunate to have among his
customers Beatrice and Pearl Hamill, sisters who were
business and math teachers at Philadelphia High School.
"When I told them I didn't have an algebra 1 book," he
says with a laugh, "they said it was a crying shame and
brought me one from the last year or the year before,
but it gave me a book!"
Outside the academic arena, James' father introduced
him to fishing and hunting, pastimes that served to
keep him "out of the streets" and that taught him
"things about life."
In school, he played alto saxophone in the marching
band, kept stats for the basketball team for a time,
and was clock operator for the athletic department,
using a stopwatch during a time electric clocks weren't
He graduated from the all-black Booker T. Washington
High School in Philadelphia second in his class,
missing valedictorian by a quarter of a point, and
began his higher education during the early 1960s at
Mary Holmes College in West Point, Mississippi.
Originally founded by the Presbyterian USA church, the
college is one of the last two predominantly black
two-year colleges in America.
While studying at Mary Holmes, James and fellow student
Florine Robbins were among many students influenced by
college president Dawson Ihorn, Jr. and his wife,
Fannie, to become involved in local civil rights
issues. In many voting districts, strategies were
erected to deny suffrage to black voters, with
educational and character requirements, poll taxes and
physical intimidation among the routines established.
Though she held a double-masters degree, Fannie, too,
was denied the right to vote after being advised she
had failed to answer correctly a question regarding the
James was among 52 students arrested following a
demonstration protesting voting issues as well as
unfair hiring practices in banks, stores and other
establishments in West Point's downtown area.
As a result of the arrest of their students, Stewart
says, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and
Congress of Racial Equality filed a successful lawsuit
against the city of West Point, with charges dropped
against the 52 and an agreement to hire blacks in
stores and banks.
"We brought about change," nods Stewart, who further
participated in an effort to get people within the
community registered to vote.
Their associates degrees complete, James and Florine
headed north; he to Detroit, Michigan and she to St.
Working for the Presbyterian Church's Detroit
presbytery, he says, taught him the working of both the
church and the inner city.
Previously inclined to study the natural sciences, he
says, "I decided I liked working with people more than
Among the positive experiences he gained, however, it
was in Detroit that he encountered "the crudest form of
racism" when he brought two white co-workers to his
home at lunchtime one day to the apartment complex in
which he was the second black resident.
"Tim was driving," he relates, "and he let Marian and
myself out." James and Marian walked into the complex
while Tim parked the car before joining them.
"When I got in that evening, the manager for the
apartment complex said the other residents had said
they weren't going to have a nigger coming in with a
white woman. I left Mississippi and went up north to
have that happen."
Stewart left Detroit with a scholarship from the church
to attend the University of the Ozarks in northwest
Arkansas, which, as a plus "was fairly close to
Mississippi." Florine had a scholarship to attend the
The couple was driving from Arkansas to Mississippi one
day when they stopped for lunch at a drive-in fast food
restaurant. "We noticed they never came out to take our
order," he says, "and there was a young black kid
standing outside the restaurant watching us laughing.
They sent him out to tell us we couldn't be served;
that was in the spring of 1967."
Being the target for such malevolent treatment "messes
with your psyche, if you let it," James advises. "You
have to be strong enough to not let that define you as
a human being."
While living in Arkansas, Stewart worked with the Ozark
Area Mission, helping to build additions for churches,
and also participated in Boyland of Arkansas, a home
for boys considered to be juvenile delinquents. "On
weekends I played big brother," smiles James.
Volunteers mentored the youth by involving them in
sports activities, both as participants and spectators,
and through spending time with them talking and
answering questions. "We tried to be a positive
influence in their lives; tried to do wholesome things
and show them a different side of life than what they
were accustomed to."
After earning his bachelor's degree in social studies
composite from the University of the Ozarks, Stewart
served his country in a combat engineering division of
the U.S. Army, a little over a year of which was spent
in Alaska where temperatures reached 90 below zero with
the wind chill factor. "It was pretty but it was very
cold," he declares. At the same time, two of his
brothers were serving in Vietnam, one as a soldier in
the Army and the other as a Marine.
James took a three-month early departure from the Army
in order to enroll in graduate school in the winter
quarter of 1970 at Jackson State University in the
state's capital, but, in the spring of 1971, was
offered the opportunity to work at his alma mater, Mary
Holmes College, as admissions recruiter. Six months
later, he was appointed acting dean of students.
In the meantime, James and Florine had married August
17, 1968. Their first child and James' namesake was
born January 7, 1970. James Thomas Stewart, II is now
an orthopedic surgeon in his second year of residency.
James II lives in the Washington D.C. area with his
wife, Christina, who is in her second year of residency
in the area of obstetrics-gynecology.
Their second son, Kenyatta, was born two years later on
January 28. Now a graphic theorist and artist with a
master's degree in graphic design and theory, he was
named after Jomo Kenyatta, who in 1963 became the first
president of newly liberated Kenya. "I wanted to give
my son a name he could be proud of," Stewart says.
James and Florine
Stewart with sons Kenyatta and James, Jr.
Stewart remained at Mary Holmes for 28 years during
which time he earned his master of education degree in
guidance and counseling with an emphasis on student
personnel services from Mississippi State University.
As the parent of two young boys, he became involved as
a volunteer soccer coach over a ten-year period with
the West Point Recreation Department, attending
workshops to learn the sport and gain certification as
Where once the banks in town would not hire blacks,
West Point's most historic banking facility became a
sponsor of Stewart's soccer teams.
James also served as president of the West Point P.T.A.,
chairman of the West Point Housing Authority Board of
Commissioners, and president of the Clay County Boys
and Girls Club as well as a member of the Bryan Library
Board of Directors and a member of the Drug Research
Education Association of Mississippi.
In working with the children of West Point, Stewart
encountered the police chief on friendly terms in
ironic contrast with their first meeting during the
street demonstrations of the 1960s. "He pulled out my
mug shot and said they didn't need it anymore; I could
show it to my grandkids and have a good laugh."
Although the mug shot has since been misplaced, Stewart
doesn't miss it, stating the memories associated with
it were not good ones. Nevertheless, he says, "I don't
regret (demonstrating against injustice); I believed in
what I was doing and that's why I did it."
He gained new opportunity when one of his former West
Point soccer players told Bethel President Bob Prosser,
"You should get my soccer coach in here."
"Bob called and I sent my resume'," relates Stewart.
After interviewing him for the position, Prosser said
he should consider interviewing another day for the
position of dean of student life. "So, I stayed at the
Briarwood Inn another night and came back the next day
and that's the rest of the story," smiles Stewart, who
assumed both positions.
He gave up his role as head coach of the Wildcat soccer
team in July 2001 in order to assume an expanded role
as dean of student development. In addition to his
former role in supervising the residence hall life,
tutoring and counseling, student activities, career
counseling, student government, security, and student
discipline, he assumed the administrative oversight of
the admissions, financial aid, religious life and
"We have good people heading up those areas," he says,
minimizing his role in the wide area of responsibility.
The job is right down his alley, however. "Basically
we're dealing with the kids outside the classroom; we
try to provide opportunities for individual and group
development of students."
Florine taught students at West Point High School 28
years and now instructs students at Henry County High
School in the area of computers and business. The
couple attends church at Greater Enon Baptist Church in
Outside the office, Stewart participated last year in
helping build a Habitat for Humanity home in McKenzie
and last summer helped attract a $50,000 to bring the
National Youth Sports Program to Bethel, a five-week
summer program that will continue this summer with
another $50,000 grant.
Working with youth over many years has made Stewart
more aware of the need for education about America's
history as well as their responsibility for the future:
"I see some kids today that don't really realize what
some people have had to go through in order to bring
about change and who don't take the advantages open to
them to go to school. I just want to snatch them by the
ear and tell them to get with it."