Wednesday, December 22, 2010

James A. Head, businessman, advocate for racial equality, dies at 106

Published: Wednesday, December 22, 2010, 5:30 AM
James A. Head, a prominent businessman and a key leader in pushing for racial progress in Birmingham, died Tuesday after a brief hospitalization. He was 106 years old.

From a hardscrabble childhood, Mr. Head, who never graduated from high school, launched an office and library supply business, James A. Head and Company, in 1926 at the age of 22. The business grew and went on to supply the vast majority of furniture to libraries in Birmingham and throughout Alabama.

In the meantime, Mr. Head acted on a basic aspect of his character: a respect for all people regardless of their race, creed or color. In 1932, he was among the founders of the Alabama Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, an organization that fought bias against Jews and Catholics.

As the crisis over civil rights brewed in the city, Mr. Head took on a central role in pushing for desegregation, mediating between black leaders and the white establishment.

"There was no other high-profile person in Birmingham who was as consistently outspoken as he was," said Ed LaMonte, recently retired history professor for Birmingham-Southern College. "I don't think there was anyone in the city that spoke as early, as consistently and as passionately as Jim did. He was really an extraordinary figure for any community, and for Birmingham he was super-extraordinary."

Lamarse Washington, executive director of the NCCJ, said the mission of the group was and is to "fight bias, bigotry and racism and promote understanding and respect among all people," and Mr. Head worked for those ideals throughout his life.

Mr. Head served as chairman emeritus of the group, now renamed the National Conference for Community and Justice, until his death, Washington said, and the group gives the James A. Head Lifetime Achievement Award in his honor each year.

Washington said Mr. Head was in the forefront of the push for inclusiveness at a time when few people supported his cause. "The community will really miss him," Washington said.

Mr. Head also served as president of the Birmingham Rotary Club, president of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, general chairman of the United Appeal and Red Cross, and a member of the Alabama Advisory Committee to the Civil Rights Commission. He was a longtime member of the Samford University board of trustees.

He led fund drives to build Holy Family Hospital in Ensley and Baptist Hospital-Montclair, and to support Samford University's move to Lakeshore Drive.

He was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor and the Alabama Business Hall of Fame.

"He was quite a guy," said Mr. Head's son, Gene. "He spent his life serving this town of Birmingham. Dad was a servant."

Mr. Head was born in Tiffin, Ohio, in 1904. But after his father died in 1913, the family moved to Alabama, his mother's native state.

Growing up in the Norwood section of Birmingham, Mr. Head dropped out of high school to help support the family, mowing lawns, delivering newspapers and performing other odd jobs.

At 18, he was hired as a salesman for a manufacturer of library system products and furniture, and four years later he founded his own business. His first big sale was furnishings for the Birmingham Public Library.

Mr. Head married Eugenia Evans in 1927, and the couple had four children: James Jr., Alan, Gene and Virginia. Mrs. Head died in 1981. They have 21 grandchildren.

"He was a good businessman but he was an even better father," Gene Head said. Former Jefferson County Commissioner Chriss Doss described Mr. Head as "a pleasant, positive, jolly fellow with a head full of good sense. He had the kind of respect for people that was exemplary."

Gene Head said his father attributed his longevity to that appreciation for all people and his consistently positive and enthusiastic attitude toward life.

"He treated the waiter at the restaurant the same as he would have treated the bank president," Gene Head said.

"We'll miss his smile and jovial humor," he said.

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