Old Dominion University Libraries
Special Collections Home

Copyright & Permitted Use of Collection Search the Collection Browse the Collection by Interviewee About the Oral Histories Collection Oral Histories Home

Interview with Ruth James
November 5, 1982
Interviewer: Mary Pelham White

Biographical Information

Ruth James was born October 13, 1912, in Norfolk County, which is now Chesapeake, Virginia, and has lived in the Edgewater section of Norfolk since she was ten years old. In 1930, she was the first woman student to register at The Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary. She spent three years studying in Norfolk and completed her degree on the Williamsburg campus of William and Mary. Upon graduation, she taught fourth grade about two years and then married Ellis James. Mrs. James's activities and involvement closely paralleled the interests of her very close-knit family. She led a Cub Scout troop as well as childstudy groups in Larchmont PTA. She was instrumental in forming an interracial committee within her church and was a member of the Women's Interracial Council in Norfolk. Thus, Ruth James was both enthusiastic and deliberate in her community work. She was raised the daughter of a Quaker pediatrician, and believed that each person deserves a "fair shake" in life. In the summer of 1958, rumor was that the Norfolk public schools would not open in September. That year, 151 Negro children had applied for enrollment in white schools of Norfolk. Constitutionally, segregated schools were unlawful as mandated by the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling; however, the Virginia Legislature had passed Massive Resistance Laws which made it unlawful for any public school in the state to enroll children of both races. The James's were in total disbelief that Virginia could deny education to anyone and that the schools really weren't going to open. With their older sons, Don and Frank out of high school, they still had their daughter, Penny, a sophomore in high school at home and in need of schooling. In 1958, Ellis, Ruth, and Penny James were lead-off litigants in the suit of James vs. Almond which resulted in the January 19, 1959, decision in which both the State and Federal Courts demolished the massive resistance laws and the Norfolk public schools re-opened -- integrated. "I avoid controversy... I really don't like controversy, but I'm the kind of person that if you push me. . . if I get my back to the wall, I'm going to fight. I'm not going to just lie down and give up. . .So, I guess we're fighters, we're not quitters." Ruth James is a warm and gentle woman who values the rights and dignity of each individual. She never went out of her way to enter controversy, but when her freedom, or that of her loved ones, was impeded, she was not afraid to confront the issue. Her sense of self is evidenced throughout her life-in her comments to the Junior Kings Daughters group when she felt a discrepancy in the purpose of the group and its leadership. . . in her pioneering as the first woman student to enroll in the Norfolk Division of William and Mary. . . in her development as a childhood growth and development specialist... in her desire to build bonds between the black and the white communities in Norfolk... in her willingness to risk the emotional and financial pain of standing up for what she believed in the school suits. . . in her steadfastness to her extended family in spite of pain and rejection... in her partnership with her husband in their marriage... and in her enthusiastic embracing of her multi-cultural family. Ruth James is an uncluttered woman, whose fundamental belief in the value of human life has been richly experienced in her Norfolk community. She moved to Norfolk after her father finished studying pediatrics in Boston.


Return to Norfolk Women's History