Chapman set example all should strive to emulate

Published 5:53 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2022

James Chapman enjoyed reflecting on his life and, having lived for well over nine decades (he was 96 when he died last week), there was plenty to recall. He always had an anecdote, a recollection of his association with someone, many of whom had already passed from the scene.

Whatever the recollection, he always delivered it good-naturedly, usually with a touch of humor, and he always found it important to say that he was “never mad at anybody.” He didn’t hate and he didn’t hold grudges.

And that’s how this longtime public servant was remembered by friends and associates this past week. During a wake held at his beloved Main Street Baptist Church, town officials, police, church members, lodge members, fellow funeral directors and a congressman told story after story of his legendary good nature, his sense of humor and his love for his community and its inhabitants.

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He was many things — consummate politician (Smithfield’s first Black council member and mayor), prominent businessman, philanthropist and more — but underlying it all, James Chapman was a Christian gentleman. Would that we could all leave that legacy when we depart.

While he was in office and I was writing about his activities, there was necessarily some professional distance between us. It was only after his retirement from politics in 2008 that we developed a close personal relationship. From his public retirement until my final visit with him in the hospital three weeks ago, he undertook the furtherance of my education in the 20th century history of our community, the struggle to make it a better place and the successes — and failures — in that regard.

Mr. Chapman’s jovial nature was clearly his greatest trademark, as speaker after speaker recalled during the wake, but it could be misleading. I’ve heard it said repeatedly by white admirers of his that he wasn’t like the “BLM” advocates. It was, in their view, a compliment that he was not a racial activist.

Well, that impression, well-intentioned though it is, does not do justice to the man and what he stood for, because beneath that genuine good nature was an iron will to make things better for his race.

James Chapman understood and supported the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement. He grew up during the height of the Jim Crow era. He knew what it meant for a young Black man to have to step off the sidewalk to let a white person pass. He knew better, as a young man, than to ever look directly at a white woman.

He also knew that being Black in America continues to be challenging today, and he understood full well what needs to be changed. He just wasn’t a person to carry a picket sign. He saw nothing wrong with protest, but his style was to use his skills as a businessman and politician to quietly bring about improvements for his race and the overall community.

An anecdote from his Town Council years tells us much about that approach. He lobbied fellow council members to bulldoze the old town jail, which was built into the hillside along what is now Luter Drive. There were people who favored keeping the century-old structure because it was part of the town’s history. I was inclined to feel that way, but when I questioned his position, he looked directly at me and said I didn’t understand.

He said that the jail was almost exclusively used to incarcerate Black residents who might have drunk too much, gotten too loud or simply upset someone in authority.

Bulldoze it, he said. And the town did. To him, it was a symbol of a deeply racist past and destroying it was a symbolic effort to turn a new leaf.

During his three decades on the Smithfield Town Council, his proudest accomplishments were improvements in the town’s poorest communities. Lakeside Heights, Jersey Park and the Rising Star area all became better places to live in large part because of his efforts. He supported the relocation of Pinewood Heights residents when that project seemed like a dream never to be realized.

But he sought a better life for the entire community. He was an early and vocal supporter of the Smithfield Center, which has become a source of pride well beyond the town. He recognized the importance of tourism and the evolving business climate it brings to town, though, like many among us old-timers, he regretted the loss of the downtown businesses that had made Smithfield what it was for most of his life.

In his private life, he was known to extend a helping hand, including financial assistance, to people in need. And as a funeral director, he was often the person who made sure that the county’s poorest families were able to bury their loved ones with dignity.

In his retirement years, he looked back over his life and recalled the many people he had known. Almost always, he remembered them kindly.

One of his favorite recollections was of the late Sheriff Whitehead, who owned a farm on Great Spring Road, near the Chapman family’s home. Like most children who were fortunate enough to go to school, James had to walk to get there. Whenever it rained, the sheriff would always pick him up at his house and take him to school. It served as an example to him that even in those days of legally enforced segregation, there was good to be found, if you could just see it.

James Chapman wasn’t blind to the recent reemergence of racism across the country. He saw it rear its head in the White Nationalist violence in Charlottesville and in the attack on the Capitol a year ago. Both events deeply saddened him.

Nevertheless, he celebrated the progress that we have made in race relations and, up until his final days, kept a positive attitude that we can always do better, and over time, will. Nothing could serve as a greater memorial to this local giant than for us to continue his work by quietly, yet forcefully, pressing forward until that which has divided us for centuries no longer does.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is