James Chapman, Smithfield’s first Black mayor, dies at 96

Published 4:47 pm Monday, March 21, 2022

Former Smithfield Mayor James Chapman, the first African American to hold the office, died March 19 after succumbing to injuries he’d sustained in a house fire.

Two weeks earlier, Smithfield’s Town Council had honored Chapman at its March 1 meeting with a resolution celebrating his 96th birthday.

He was born in 1926 in a house that once stood where the Route 10 bypass now crosses through town, and began his decades-long career with the Pretlow & Chapman Funeral Home on West Main Street as a teenager, according to The Smithfield Times’ archives. During World War II, he joined the Navy and was stationed in Japan and Hawaii near the end of the war.

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Upon returning to the United States, he completed mortuary school in New York City and returned to Smithfield, where he continued to work part-time at Pretlow & Chapman while also working full-time at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

When the funeral home’s owner, Richard Pretlow, died in 1963, Chapman took over running the business with Pretlow’s widow. In 1972, he began serving on the town’s Planning Commission, and in 1978 — the same year Pretlow’s widow died — he was elected as Smithfield’s first Black town councilman.

His tenure on Smithfield’s Town Council spanned 31 years – 19 of them as mayor.

“He was a hero,” said William Barlow, a former state delegate and longtime friend of Chapman’s. “He was a person who brought people of different views together … His legacy will live on for many, many years.”

But his time on council was not always free of conflict.

In 1978, Smithfield voters were asked to choose from five candidates for four available seats. Chapman’s vote total ended up not only securing him a council seat, but also surpassing the number of votes then-incumbent mayor Carl Beale Jr. had received.

This should have qualified Chapman to succeed Beale as mayor, according to past reporting by the Times, but the sitting council members changed their procedure for selecting a mayor and vice mayor that year to require a majority vote of the council’s members — rather than automatically awarding the position to the highest vote-getter. The change remains in place to this day.

In 1990, Chapman made history again as the town’s first Black mayor after securing a 4-3 vote among his fellow council members. Chapman had nominated himself in June for the office, but received no support from his fellow council members during a meeting the Times described as “fruitless sparring” that left them without a consensus on a mayor or vice mayor. Chapman then vowed to campaign for the position and was ultimately successful two months later, in August.

Chapman’s loss will be “felt for a long, long time,” Barlow said.

Robert Little, director of Little’s Funeral Home on South Church Street, recalls meeting Chapman in the 1960s when Little worked at the now-demolished Little’s Supermarket at the edge of the town’s historic district. Chapman, he recalled, was a regular customer there. The two also frequently interacted after Little received his funeral director’s license.

“He was just a super guy to work with, very respected,” Little said.

Valerie Butler, a current member of Smithfield’s Town Council and Chapman’s cousin, described him as a “giant of a man who touched the lives of so many.”

In 1992, when Smithfield’s current mayor, Carter Williams, was elected to his first term on Town Council, Chapman stepped into a mentorship role.

“He kind of took me under his wing,” Williams said. “He was a big mentor to me.”

In 2017, Smithfield’s Rotary and Ruritan clubs named Chapman the town’s Citizen of the Year. According to the story published in the Times that year, Chapman had been instrumental during his time on Town Council in bringing public water and sewer service to several predominantly Black residential areas, including the Jersey Park apartments and Lakeside Heights, where he lived.

A wake will be held March 25 from 4-6 p.m. in the Williams Mission Center at Main Street Baptist Church. A funeral will be held at noon on March 26 at the same location.