The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

James Early

Cultural educator James Counts Early was born in Ocala, Florida, on December 12, 1947. Early studied Spanish at Morehouse College in Atlanta, earning his B.A. in 1969. He also spent a year studying in Panama at the Canal Zone College. After graduation, Early attended Howard University, where he received his M.A. degree in 1971, and then studied for his Ph.D. degree. While there, he also attended Georgetown University, where he studied Portuguese at the Advanced Portuguese Institute.

During his years as a student, Early worked a number of jobs that helped to shape his career. At the Martin Luther King Center, he worked in the archives and then from 1970 to 1971 as an administrative and research assistant to the director of the Institute of the Black World. In 1973, he went to work at the Smithsonian Institute as a folklore consultant and researcher. He was promoted in 1974 to the acting administrator until 1976. That year, he became an associate professor at Antioch College in Washington, D.C., and worked in research at Howard University's Institute for the Arts and Humanities. In 1978, Early became the producer, writer and host of Ten Minutes Left, a weekly radio show on WHUR-FM. He hosted this program for five years while working at the National Endowment for the Humanities as the humanist administrator. He worked at NEH until 1984 when he returned to the Smithsonian Institute to work as the executive assistant to the assistant secretary for public service. Since then, he has held a variety of positions including working as the assistant provost for educational and cultural programs; director of cultural studies and communication at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Studies; and director of cultural heritage policy at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Active in many organizations, Early served on the founding steering committee of the International Network for Cultural Diversity and was the humanities coordinator of the Trans-Africa Afro Americans and Cuba Cultural Conversation Project in 2000. He has served on the board of directors of the Children's Studio School since 1993, and since 1995 on the National Black Program Consortium, a program that funds independent black filmmakers. Early is a renaissance man. He writes on the politics of culture, lectures internationally and works with those in prison. Skilled with languages, Early is fluent in Spanish, can converse in Portuguese, reads French and has some knowledge of Mandarin Chinese.

Accession Number

A2003.118

Sex

Male

Interview Date

6/4/2003

Last Name

Early

Maker Category
Organizations
Schools

Lucy Moten Training School

Morehouse College

First Name

James

Birth City, State, Country

Ocala

HM ID

EAR01

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Florida

Favorite Vacation Destination

Cuba

Favorite Quote

In Peace, Progress, and Justice.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Birth Date

1/12/1947

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Brussels Sprouts

Short Description

Cultural heritage administrator and folklorist James Early (1947 - ) had a long career in the humanities holding positions in institutions such as the Center for Folklife and Cultural Studies, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian.

Employment

Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change

Institute of the Black World

Smithsonian Institute

Antioch College

Howard University Institute for the Arts and Humanities

WHUR Radio

National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Favorite Color

Green

Timing Pairs
0,0:1120,21:1610,29:6860,159:22302,407:23981,469:24638,481:26536,525:28872,579:30040,602:34639,703:35077,710:36026,724:36756,740:37121,746:37997,769:44141,793:46342,827:46768,834:47123,840:51312,890:51738,897:52661,917:52945,922:56282,1012:56566,1026:61848,1073:62552,1087:64088,1114:66968,1182:67288,1188:69400,1289:75612,1383:98741,1817:135833,2275:137065,2298:148950,2442:149925,2461:151485,2496:153890,2557:166790,2774:167165,2780:167690,2788:169265,2817:170015,2828:173860,2842:178592,2892:179744,2925:186080,3062:186720,3123:187104,3131:201130,3359:201830,3370:205120,3442:205610,3450:207850,3504:208410,3513:211980,3594:224550,3743:225595,3772:227685,3818:229770,3843$0,0:1716,19:3234,51:5676,90:9900,158:14652,250:14916,255:15246,261:20700,302:22080,333:22920,348:23280,355:23700,363:23940,368:25020,391:30990,451:31530,463:38070,629:38910,645:40710,687:41490,706:49470,790:54342,934:57142,996:57758,1010:65340,1124:65700,1132:66540,1153:69660,1214:69900,1219:70620,1234:72120,1274:73620,1309:73860,1314:74100,1319:75900,1365:76140,1370:76860,1383:77100,1388:85920,1496:87824,1530:88164,1536:89728,1565:90612,1580:94828,1646:96800,1692:97888,1709:99520,1733:99996,1741:105343,1757:105651,1764:108731,1811:111118,1845:112735,1869:113890,1895:114352,1905:118446,1923:121254,1964:123438,2006:124530,2025:129662,2088:134146,2192:134854,2210:136034,2231:137273,2270:137745,2281:157859,2625:158258,2634:158714,2644:165060,2730:169116,2823:170286,2843:171144,2856:171768,2862:193448,3172:193917,3181:194654,3199:200215,3302:202426,3353:209010,3389:209315,3395:209925,3407:210230,3413:210718,3423:211145,3432:216460,3520:216980,3531:218605,3573:226145,3738:226470,3744:233480,3842:233935,3851:235755,3887:236340,3898:238030,3929:239915,3991:240695,4008:241280,4018:242710,4049:243295,4059:244010,4074:245310,4089:245700,4096:245960,4101:250340,4124
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of James Early's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - James Early lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - James Early shares stories of his maternal family's life in Central Florida during the early to mid-20th century

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - James Early describes his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - James Early describes his maternal grandmother

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - James Early describes his father

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - James Early describes his relationship with his father

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - James Early describes how his relationship with his father influenced his relationship with his sons

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - James Early imagines how his parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - James Early describes his paternal family background

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - James Early describes the sights, smells, and sounds of his childhood in Dunnellon, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - James Early describes his move to Tallahassee, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - James Early describes his experiences in school in Tallahassee, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - James Early describes growing up in Tallahassee, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - James Early talks about joining the Episcopal Church as a youth

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - James Early talks about his independence

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - James Early describes what type of student he was

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - James Early talks about the flexibility of his aspirations

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - James Early describes enrolling at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - James Early describes enrolling at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - James Early describes his experiences attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - James Early talks about experimenting with drugs and his social circle as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - James Early describes attending Panama Canal College in the Panama Canal Zone from 1966 to 1967

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - James Early describes how the culture of Black Power and black intellectualism during the late 1960s affected him

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - James Early describes taking over Morehouse College in 1969

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - James Early describes receiving a Southern Foundation Fellowships to study at the Institute of the Black World

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - James Early describes receiving a Ford Foundation Fellowship to pursue his doctorate degree at Howard University

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - James Early describes his move to Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - James Early describes his experiences pursuing his doctoral degree at Howard University

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - James Early describes being hired by the Smithsonian Institution

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - James Early describes his experiences studying at Howard University for his Ph.D. degree

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - James Early talks about HistoryMaker Haki Madhubuti

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - James Early talks about HistoryMaker Bernice Johnson Reagon

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - James Early describes the start of his radio show "Ten Minutes Left" on WHUR-FM

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - James Early describes his radio show on WHUR-FM, "Ten Minutes Left," pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - James Early describes his radio show on WHUR-FM, "Ten Minutes Left," pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - James Early describes quitting his Ph.D. program at Howard University

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - James Early comments on his confidence and sense of self direction

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - James Early reflects upon not earning his doctoral degree at Howard University

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - James Early describes being hired as a Field Researcher for the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - James Early describes his experiences working as a Field Researcher for the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - James Early describes his experiences working as executive assistant to the assistant secretary for public service at the Smithsonian Institution

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - James Early talks about losing his job as executive assistant to the assistant secretary for public service at the Smithsonian Institution

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - James Early describes the challenges he faced at the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - James Early describes the challenges he faced at the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - James Early describes why he was drawn to Cuba

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - James Early talks about cultural debates in Cuba

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - James Early comments on racial and national identity in Cuba

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - James Early talks about scholars on Cuban race and culture

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - James Early comments on the meaning of culture

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - James Early describes how Eurocentric paradigms have shaped oppressive culture, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - James Early describes how Eurocentric paradigms have shaped oppressive culture, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - James Early shares his hopes and concerns for the black community, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - James Early shares his hopes and concerns for the black community, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - James Early shares his hopes and concerns for the black community, pt. 3

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - James Early reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - James Early talks about his future plans

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - James Early talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - James Early narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$5

DAStory

4$5

DATitle
James Early describes taking over Morehouse College in 1969
James Early describes the challenges he faced at the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs, pt. 1
Transcript
It began--I began to channel that in a more focused way and then that radicalism with the takeover of the university [Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia] and locking up Daddy King [Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr.] and Judge [Elbert] Tuttle of the Fifth District Court and somebody from the MacGregor Sporting Goods family and Dr. [Benjamin E.] Mays was in that lockup and distinguishing myself for myself from the students who were in the takeover. I had not been a part of the organizing group. They had invited me to a meeting the evening before. I went and stayed at the meeting all of fifteen minutes and then I went to see my main lady friend, who later became my wife, still is my wife after thirty years and the next day when I heard that they had actually taken over the place, I climbed up a tree, went through a second floor window and went in the building and got up there, walked into the conference room where this debate was going on and when I came out of the conference room, some doors had been shut and chained by the students. And there I was, and because I was independent minded, it was easy for me to find my own voice and perspective; although it was a tense situation. And so I was with the crowd but I was really not a part of the crowd. And coming out of that, our group was called--formed--this was SOBU, before SOBU, out of North Carolina, it was called Students Organizing for Black Unity and we met at A. B. Spellman's [HM] house and I was elected chair. And I remember Abdul Alkalimat said we will be watching you and I said, and I'll be watching you. And there I was so I was off into activism. And we were kicked out of school and--for moral interpitude [sic, turpitude]--I never get the term right but it increased my--almost increased my vocabulary.$$Well, what was the, what was the takeover about. I mean, what was it actually about, who took over? I mean the students took over the administration?$$The state--students took over and, of course, A. B. Spellman and Abdul Alkalimat, Abdul was really sort of the pivot, I don't--hesitate to say leader, in many ways he was the leader. You know, 'cause he was defiant and he was quite articulate, this University of Chicago PhD, you know in sociology. And he took on all these people in the Board of Trustees, anything they said, he could run history around 'em and reference books and what not and firebrand and that regard. In the takeover, some of the issues were, we wanted, we called for the consolidation of all the schools in the University Center to call it the Martin Luther King University and we had a very material outlook on this, that it would economize, you know, rather than having multiple gyms and, and pools or whatever at student centers. We wanted more black history courses. So there were some legitimate things there, black studies courses we wanted. And what is the term I'm looking for--I've got a cold today and I'm a little tired but the term amnesty--I'd never heard the term amnesty. I didn't know what--and at the end--I know we were in there two and a half days, three days, we worked out that we would leave and let the people out and then somebody said, what about amnesty. And I'm thinking what in the hell is amnesty, you know, but as the conversation went on, I realized (laughter) that--but we were summarily tried by university courts and suspended and, I think I was one of one or two seniors. Sam Jackson talks a lot about this. I'm not sure that Sam was as actively involved as certainly in my memory as I remember. I know Sam well. He's an old friend, the big time actor now.$$Samuel L. Jackson?$$Samuel L. Jackson, yeah, he was (simultaneous)--he was a year, at least a year behind me but my degree was suspended and the debate was whether or not I would--the degree would be conferred on me.$I, and I'm sort of isolated by nature in the sense that I'm an independent thinker so I'm always, I move across sectors. I'm not up, out in the margins from people but I'm sort of my own axis in that regard. And, but at a certain point, I began to talk about that. I, it was liberating for me and I thought it was instructive for younger people coming through that these are the kinds of weights and burdens that you're going to bear. 'Cause, not only had we contributed to opening up and democratizing this institution. It was then a general movement in the society where a lot of people were coming that had no particular relationship to what my work had done over the particular things that me and some other colleagues had been involved in. And my main reference points was young Latinos who would often say, well, why do I--I'm not a translator. I'm an anthropologist. I'm a historian. And I'm saying, you know, if your generation does not take on the responsibility of helping get things out in your language, you're putting the next generation that further behind. Their paradigm was I want to be just--not just as Latinos but a lot of blacks and other people and women and so forth, I want to be just like the white people in the solution following my own individual field. Well, we're not just like them. We are trained like them. We have the same abilities in many instances but we can't get through the door like them. So we do have to do translations. We do have to do community outreach in addition to being historians and botanists and biologists and administrators, that's a double, triple duty that history has put before us. We either will own up to it or we will be narrowly individualistic. So my talking about the pains that I went through and the self-revelation and being able to, to heal myself and/or to recognize my wounds and some that I still carry. That's an important benefit that I can offer and it also helps heal, continues to help me heal myself. So, it took me a while to settle in here and I still live sort of on the margins of this center. Although I'm at the center of anything I want to be at and I get a lot of positive respect. I also get a lot of differential respect 'cause I am known as somebody who will battle and take you on. I don't care about your status and how many degrees you got. If I think I understand something or contribute something, know in this institution I got into a big spat with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who in my view, is racist. He's the Chancellor of the Smithsonian Board of Regents and got into it over an issue of Latinos, access of Latinos. And people said but you're not Latino and I said but you know there were no Latinos in the room to speak for themselves and when the late [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan said that's what's wrong with a group think communities and he used another term. I said I felt like somebody had said nigger but he had--that was--he was not talking about blacks. Now Moynihan is a bright man, great--but I didn't mind taking him on in a point of principle and, you know, I argued with secretaries of the Smithsonian. People said you can't do that. And I said sure I can. And you can too. And there happened to be one secretary, Bob McCormick Adams who came in just after I was hired. You know, he and I fought quite a bit and he would say to me, Early sometimes I don't think you make any sense and other times I find you quite illuminating. And I felt like fair enough. And when I was quite illuminating, he moved. And when I could not convince him, he did not move but he never used his authority to say you have no right to speak. You know he would say to me often, you are useful bearer under these people's saddle. They would go to him and complain. Other assistant secretaries, you know Early is challenging this and he's arranging across the institution and my view was, I live in the whole institution and until I see people who look like me and from different communities and the mainstream community here, then I'm going to range rather than just stay pigeon holed.