An Investigation into the Death of Professor George G. M. James
A couple of months back, I read a blog that raised questions about the death of Professor George G. M. James, author of the controversial work of history Stolen Legacy. The writer of the blog implied that shortly after the publication of Stolen Legacy James had died under mysterious perhaps even violent circumstances. So looking for sources I checked Wikipedia. The article on James confirmed he had died violently but did so without citation, a common shortcoming of this community based online encyclopedia. The article on James may in fact have been the blog writer’s source or perhaps the blog writer contributed to the article. In any case, both were reporting that James had died violently under mysterious circumstances. When I stumbled upon that blog, I was already working on a history of the “Vindicationist School” of Black Historians, which in addition to James includes Joseph Ben Jochannan, John G. Jackson, John Henrik Clark, and Cheikh Anta Diop. Previously I had often wondered without follow up what became of James so I decided to do a preliminary investigation into his death.
The blog writer’s theory seemed plausible, at least on the face of it. At the time of his death, James was on faculty at Arkansas State College in Pine Bluff, an HBCU. It was the mid 1950s, and the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. The U.S. Supreme Court had made its historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas the same year that Stolen Legacy was published, and Arkansas was about to take the national stage as the test bed for school desegregation. On the defensive against integration, White southerns were acting with increased hostility towards African Americans, especially in the deep south. A year after Brown and a year before Jackson died, in Money, Mississippi, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam lynched 14-year old Emmett Till, a cherub-faced African American boy from Chicago visiting the deepest south for what would be his last time. His internationally publicized torture and death followed closely on the heels of the publication of what would be James’ magnum opus.
The deaths of James and Till are not directly connected, but the alleged offense that cost Till his life, supposedly having whistled at the wife of Roy Bryant, cut against the same lily-white “Ubermensch” ideas that James assailed in Stolen Legacy making them akin. Viewed as literature, Stolen Legacy was itself similar to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor Has No Clothes in that it wagged a perspicacious finger at western intellectuals on the subject of the origin of Greek philosophy, just as the child had pointed a perceptive finger at the Emperor dressed in his birthday suit in Andersen’s fairy tale. In his version, James had averred that the foundation of Greek philosophy was Egyptian philosophy, and that in as much as Egypt was in Africa, Egyptian philosophy was an African innovation that western intellectuals had falsely attributed to the Greeks. James had struck a blow at the foundation of western civilization which rests upon the twin pillars of Greek history and Greek philosophy. If either pillar should fall the entire origin of western civilization would topple into myth and require what would be for many proponents of the traditional view of western civilization an unthinkable rethinking.
In the deep south in the 1950s, where white southerners killed African Americans out of ignorance and hate; for sport, for fun, and for nothing at all, it is not much of a stretch to imagine that James’ thesis might have placed him in the crosshairs of a white supremacist group or that of a white supremacist acting alone. So real is that concern to some African Americans that as recent as a couple of years ago, the expression “white supremacy” was automatically filtered in email correspondence at Lane College, an HBCU in Jackson, Tennessee. Meaning that if you used that expression in an email, even for a legitimate purpose, your email would be captured by the college server and not forwarded to the recipient. I made this discovery while on faculty at Lane College when I attempted to organize a forum to discuss the source of the problem behind police brutality and violence in the Black community. My colleagues explained to me that we could discuss police brutality but that I could not use the expression “white supremacy” as it was too controversial and thus not permitted. James had died in Tennessee. Appreciating how white southerners in 1954 would have most likely viewed and reacted to his book it seemed plausible that the challenge made by James in Stolen Legacy may have cost James his life.
I began my research into his death on Ancestry.com, a useful research tool when looking for vital records for a person. I immediately found where Professor James had made an application for a Social Security card. The application revealed that he was born in Georgetown, Guyana on November 9, 1893 to Finch and Margaret James. Since James had personally made the application for the Social Security card, we can safely assume that his place of birth and date of birth along with the names of his parents on that document are indeed accurate. In fact, his place of birth on his Social Security card application corrects his place of birth on his death certificate, which lists Jamaica in the then British West Indies. Wikipedia had had his place of birth and parents names correct. What about his death? How did Professor James die? Had his death come as a consequence of him having thrown down the gauntlet against racist white scholars on the origins of Greek philosophy? Not exactly.
According to his death certificate, Professor James died June 30, 1956, presumably under the care of Black physicians at the George W. Hubbard Hospital, the Black hospital named after its first director and associated with Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Founded in 1876, Meharry is of course the second oldest African American college of medicine in the United States. Physicians admitted Professor James into Hubbard Hospital on June 9th, so his death came after a 21-day hospitalization. The immediate cause of death on his death certificate is listed as gastric cancer. The secondary cause is listed as Aneurysm, Innominate Artery, and Arteriosclerotic Heart Disease.
I am familiar with gastric cancer because my father, a physician, gave away two thirds of his stomach in his fight against that very form of cancer, a cancer that is low ranking among the causes of cancer deaths in the United States, accounting for a little more than 1% of cancer deaths each year. Even more rare is the aneurysm of the Innominate Artery. According to a 1985 study of 1147 aneurysm patients, only three had an aneurysm of the Innominate Artery. That is 0.003% of that population. In the 1950s, aneurysms of the Innominate Artery were often syphilitic, large lesions, with a poor prognosis because they were difficult to treat. Today, if diagnosed in time medicine can often successfully treat the condition. In considering etiology, there is no mention of syphilis on Professor James’ death certificate, but the Atherosclerosis that is mentioned accounts for 60% of cases of aneurysm of the Innominate Artery today, giving credence to the idea of it being a contributing factor to James’ death. Since there is also no mention of any form of trauma or injury on the death certificate it seems likely that there was no overt foul play. Professor James’ death then was a result of medical complications from at least two diseases. Medically and sufficiently this should firmly establish his cause of death, and yet his death occurred at a high watermark of the Cold War, a time when assassinations were carried out covertly. Having previously read about disease-induced assassinations I could not suppress wondering if the source of his primary cause of death was natural or artificially introduced by an external agent. Could there have been a covert contributor that seeded his gastric cancer? If so, this would mean government involvement.
During the Cold War, assassinations were carried out by a variety of insidious and surreptitious means, one such method was the use of the radioactive element Polonium. Polonium is a carcinogen, and in 2013 Aljazeera linked it to the death of Yassar Arafat, former iconic head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Could Polonium be the true source of James’ cancer? Perhaps but without more information it seems unlikely. Nevertheless, before you dismiss the idea as conspiracy, consider that Professor James was an Ivy league educated academician of the first order whose research was directly challenging the supremacy of Greco-Roman philosophy, the foundation of western civilization. It is likely that James would have been a known person to the United States government and known possibly to the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover specialized in sniffing out nonconformist. He oversaw COINTELPRO, a FBI counter intelligence initiative that often used illegal means to disrupt groups seeking in someway to reform American society. His pursuit of the Black Panther Party is well documented. Hoover viewed as subversive or communist any group or individual that he deemed a threat to the status quo. He even investigated Eleanor Roosevelt, so it is not hard to imagine him investigating James. But investigating James and having him murdered are two different things entirely. People write controversial books all the time, and the best defense against a book like Stolen Legacy is to do what mainstream white and black scholars have done for 60 years, which is to ignore it.
Future research may give us the final word, but there is only plausible conjecture supporting the idea of foul play in James death. For now the most substantive evidence points to his death as being of natural causes.