The eyes grab you first. They stare at you from the black-and-white photo, soft and, it seems, inquisitive.
Zoom out, and you notice the man’s appearance. Well-dressed in a suit jacket, a white dress shirt and a tie that is knotted perfectly. His hair is short.
His name is Benton James and, in 1924, he became the first African American graduate of Arizona State University, then known as Tempe Normal School.
Learn more about Benton's life in our Instagram story.
Research has provided some biographical information about James.
He was one of three Black students who graduated from Phoenix Union High School in 1921.
In 1925 he became principal of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Colored School in Tucson.
He was married, to Josephine “Sophie” Spann, lived in California for a while, working as a teacher and then for the South Pacific Railroad, and died on Jan. 11, 1988, laid to rest in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
But who James was — what he believed in, how he lived his life, who he was to family members and friends — remains a mystery.
A mystery that Jessica Salow, the assistant archivist of Black Collections at ASU, and Shannon Walker, who oversees ASU’s archives, would love to unravel in the 100th anniversary of James’ graduation.
They’re hoping someone connected to James will read this article, contact them and tell them all about the man in the photo.
Not just because he was the first African American graduate, although that’s important.
Salow and Walker believe a university needs to connect with and understand its past and, sometimes, archives and yearbook photos only tell a tiny fraction of the story.
“This is kind of a call to action for folks to really dig into what this history means and why it’s important for them to share, either with their family or their community or whoever,” Salow said. “Benton James is really a significant story, and we don’t know much about him, which is a travesty.”
James’ story — or lack of one — reflects on a wider problem, Walker noted.
Because questions about ethnicity likely weren’t asked until the 1960s or 1970s, ASU archivists don’t know how many African American students were at the university in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
“We’re trying to find out,” Walker said. “But it’s difficult. There were probably students of color who didn’t declare themselves. So it’s hard to put a number on that.”
That lack of information is why Salow is hopeful friends or family members of James — and other early African American students — will come forward and share their story.
That happened one day in 2019 when Michelle McHenry searched the internet for the name of Stella McHenry, her late husband’s aunt. Michelle found a reference to Stella in a book titled “The African American Experience in Tempe.”
An excerpt from the book identified Stella McHenry as a 1925 graduate of Tempe Normal School. Intrigued, Michelle began digging through ASU’s various webpages and came upon the ASU “Firsts” page on the ASU Library website. The page listed Love Hatton Jordan as the first female African American graduate, in 1928.
She found the “Ask an Archivist” section of the library website and asked online when Stella had graduated.
The return email said 1925.
An important part of ASU’s history had been discovered.
More about Stella's story
• Read the ASU News article: Photo album sparks discovery of ASU's first female African American graduate.
• Hear ASU archivist Shannon Walker talk about Stella McHenry at the Tempe History Museum on Feb. 14.
“Stella is the kind of example we are absolutely looking for when it comes to these types of stories,” Salow said. “It really is beneficial for folks to understand the true history of an entire institution and the many people who came through there. For us not to know who Benton James was feels like a disservice not only to us, but to James, the community and the understanding of Black students at this institution.”
“I think it’s important to the current students, too,” Walker added. “To see themselves in history. To recognize their heritage in the history of the school. And to be able to identify with students who have blazed trails before and enabled them to be here.”
Although Walker only has a blurry photo and some biographical information to go on, she believes James must have been a strong and courageous young man. Until the early 1960s, Tempe was a sundown town. African Americans were permitted to work in the city but forced to live elsewhere.
“I can’t imagine it was a very easy decision for him to come to ASU,” Walker said. “From the little research I’ve done, most African American students during that time, if they had the means, went to historically Black communities, colleges and universities. Definitely not a state school, like Arizona State University.
“That’s why our focus is kind of to tell those stories about these really bold and courageous students who decided to come here when they knew it would be difficult.”
One hundred years have passed since James graduated. Telling his story may prove impossible. But as was the case with Stella McHenry, it only takes one person to fill a blank page.
“That would be amazing if it happened,” Salow said. “It would literally be like the cherry on top of the cake.”
Reach out to the ASU Library
Have information about Benton James or other historical Black graduates? Contact the ASU Library.
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