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James R. Hamm: News dealer, local leader

By Anthony Neal
James R. Hamm: News dealer, local leader

African American James R. Hamm established one of the oldest news dealer companies in Boston in the late 19th century and exhibited leadership in local affairs. He was born the son of Martha and Braxton Hamm in Henrico County, Va. in 1857. Hamm first came to Boston in 1879, but soon left for New York and gained experience in the news dealer field. He returned to Boston in 1884 and, three years later, with $800 to start his newsstand company, bought out another run-down business for its inventory. He established James R. Hamm and Co., an outlet that sold newspapers, books, periodicals, stationery and small wares.

Over a six-year period, Hamm’s annual sales increased, requiring him to relocate his business to 46 Howard St. in 1893. There it remained for over 25 years. By 1907, he enjoyed the distinction of having the oldest business of its kind in the West End. A Boston correspondent for The New York Age reported that the “display of magazines, newspapers, popular novels and other goods” was “as good as any shop of the sort in that section of the city.”

Everything in his store was systematically arranged, and with a roster of devoted customers, he did over $10,000 a year in business. While Hamm had “a quiet manner such as to give the impression of much reserve force,” noted the reporter, the news dealer was “very courteous, unassuming and modest.”   

On June 25, 1888, Hamm married Lottie E. Potter, a dressmaker from Boston. The couple made their home 32 Monroe St. and had two children: Edgar Tinsley Hamm, born on April 9, 1890, and Ralph Conrad Hamm, born on March 31, 1893.

Mindful that the federal government had stopped protecting and enforcing African Americans’ civil rights in the Southern states, Hamm held strong views about black men volunteering to fight for the United States, and he expressed those views at a meeting of the Colored National League on March 29, 1898. Established in December 1887, the Colored National League (CNL) was a civil rights organization that met regularly at the Charles Street A.M.E. Church in Boston.

Before black men volunteer to fight for the country, Hamm argued at the league meeting, Congress should pass laws prohibiting the states from discriminating against them. He offered a resolution providing, “Whereas several states in the Union have passed laws discriminating against colored American citizens and preventing them [from] taking any active part in the government of the country, be it resolved that we recommend to all colored men residing in said states to refuse to enlist as volunteers in the U.S. Army, should there be war with Spain, or any other foreign power, unless the Congress of the United States pass such laws as will prevent said states [from] passing discriminating laws against any portion of their citizens.”  

In support of his resolution, Hamm pointed out that black troops in the regular army were the first to be sent to fight the Spaniards in Cuba. He maintained that before fighting the battles of the United States, African American men required some assurance that their rights would be protected in states where “lynching [blacks] are considered as good sport as fox hunting.”

Former U.S. Consul to Liberia Ezekiel Ezra Smith, who had attended the CNL meeting, opposed the adoption of the resolution. He fought in the Spanish-American War in 1898. “If the nation calls you, respond like men,” he urged, “and achieve glory like that which was wrested upon hard-fought battlefields by our brethren who clinched the liberty which you enjoy today.” The consensus of the CNL at that time was that while certain states had abridged the rights of black people, it did not lessen their duty to the federal government, for that government was not responsible for denying those rights. After careful consideration and considerable debate, CNL members overwhelmingly rejected the resolution.  

But James Hamm was well-respected in Boston’s black community and held leadership positions in a number of business and civic organizations. He became a founding member of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League (NNBL) in 1900, serving as the second president of its Boston branch in 1902.

He was one of the leaders of the Boston delegation that escorted Washington on the night of Aug. 23, 1902 from his summer home in South Weymouth to Richmond, Va., where the third annual meeting of the NNBL took place. At the fourth annual conference of the NNBL, held in Nashville, Tenn., the third week of August 1903, Hamm presented a paper titled, “The Negro as News Dealer.”   

In 1901, he served as president of the Wendell Phillips Club — a fraternity comprised of over 100 black men from Massachusetts. When Captain Charles L. Mitchell, one of the first two black men elected to the Massachusetts legislature, co-founded the club in 1882, it took its name with the sanction of Wendell Phillips himself, who died about two years later. On March 5, 1904, Hamm was elected chairman of the executive committee of the Crispus Attucks Club.

What were his views about the future of the race? Hamm told a reporter in August 1901 that he saw “no reason why the Negro should not attain perfect equality with the white man in America, politically, morally and socially.” Even though, beginning in 1890 with the state of Mississippi’s poll tax and residency requirements, he had witnessed the steady erosion of black people’s voting rights throughout the South, he remained optimistic about those rights.

Hamm correctly predicted that “public sentiment … like a tidal wave” would eventually “force the government of the United States to enact laws” which would “make permanent the Negroes’ political rights.” He espoused Washington’s philosophy. As for moral and social parity, Hamm explained, “Morality and industry go together,” and it was incumbent upon “Prof. Booker T. Washington, with other good and honest colored men and women engaged in that work,” to “convince a great many people that the Negro” was “going in the right direction.” In Hamm’s estimation, social equality was a thing that did “not worry most colored men and women” because, “like water,” it would “find its level.” With wealth and education, African Americans, he thought, would “slowly but surely advance to a higher plane of influence and social equality.”