Black History Month: James Chiles

“Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of Liberty.” These opening lines to a poem were penned by James Weldon Johnson in 1899 and later adopted as the Negro National anthem served as an organizing principle in the life of James Alexander Chiles. James and his twin brother John were born to Richard and Martha Chiles in 1860. Their large family of eight children and two parents lived in Virginia.

James and John shared more than their birthday, they also shared a passion for education. To them, it was a tool that could be used to improve life for themselves as well as others, and to that end, John helped to finance James’ degrees. First at Lincoln University and then the University of Michigan Law School. After earning his law degree, James moved to Lexington, Kentucky where in 1890 he established his law practice and claimed the distinction of being the first African American lawyer in that city.

In 1910, as a paying first-class passenger traveling from Washington D.C. to Lexington on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, he was forced to move to a segregated coach. James then used his knowledge of the law to challenge the concept of separate but equal. While the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the lower courts, presenting his arguments before them secured his historical position as first African American to be granted the opportunity to do so.

James pioneering spirit was not limited to his professional pursuits. He and his wife Fannie J. Bates Chiles were active members of the first Colored Seventh Day Adventist congregation in Lexington which was built in 1906. She served as its first librarian and he as a deacon, trustee, and treasurer. The following notice appeared in a local paper upon his death, "Tribute is paid Negro attorney by local bar," Lexington Leader, 04/09/1930, p.1

Proverbs 22:29 reads, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand in the presence of kings. He will not stand in the presence of unknown men.” James Alexander Chiles lived a life that serves as an example to all Americans of what is possible when opportunity, access to resources, and hard work are combined.