James Hembray Wilson, Sr. (musician / band director)
(born: 1880 – died: 1961)
Born in Nicholasville, KY, James Hembray Wilson was a noted band director and musician, he played the cornet. He was a faculty member at Alabama A&M College [now Alabama A & M University] 1903-1904, he took over the school band, succeeding W. C. Handy, the former band director. Wilson left the school to tour with Billy Kersands and the Georgia Minstrels. Wilson returned to the school in 1907 to remain there until his retirement in 1951. He had been a musician in Jacob Litt’s ‘In Old Kentucky’ Company in 1896, bandmaster in Al Martin’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin from 1897-1899, cornetist in Mahara’s Minstrels in 1899, and worked with many other groups. He became the first African American treasurer at Alabama A&M in 1947 and served as the first African American postmaster at the school from 1919-1942. The James Hembray Wilson Building, located on the Alabama A&M campus, houses the James Hembray Wilson State Black Archives Research Center and Museum. James Hembray Wilson was the son of Hester and Jacob Wilson, and the husband of Eveline Wilson. He graduated from high school in Cincinnati, OH, and from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He died in Normal, Alabama on October 2, 1961 [source: Alabama, Deaths and Burials Index]. For more see Who’s Who in Colored America, 1950; “New Acquisitions” on p.3 in the Newsletter of the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments, Fall 2006, no.29 [online .pdf]; and Alabama A&M Wilson Building under the headline “Why is it named that” by D. Nilsson on p.6 in Pen & Brush, February 2003, vol.43, issue 4 (newsletter of the Huntsville/North Alabama Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication and others).
Additionally, “With Trumpet and Bible: The Illustrated Life of James Hembrey Wilson” written by Frank Tirro ( a Yale professor) should be required reading for your music majors; actually for all students.
The description reads: “James Hembray Wilson was an African-American soloist, composer, conductor, and music professor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today it seems that his name has slipped into one of time’s hidden corners. This book brings that story and other significant issues to light: What was life like for an African American raised in the South in the 1880s? Were there paths to education and success for Black Americans facing the terrible prejudicial environment in the states that lost the War Between the States? What kind of life and what possible hope might they have during the years before World War I to the years after the Second World War? Exploring these questions and illustrating one black man’s life are but some of the many threads Frank Tirro weaves into the fabric of his fascinating biography, With Trumpet and Bible.
This compelling story is the documented account of the talented, intelligent, and ambitious African-American musician, James Hembray Wilson, a man who faced the challenges of his day and succeeded, despite his modest education and limited financial resources to become one of the most respected and idolized professors of a vital historically black college in the South. Working hand-in-hand with Alabama A&M’s first four presidents, teaching courses as diverse as Rhetoricals, Band, and Bible Study, and serving as Postmaster, Bookkeeper, and, finally, Treasurer of the college, Wilson guided generations of young African Americans to the brink of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. “His is an American tale that weaves together the history of the shocking inequalities of our educational system, the dawn of the civil rights movement, and the flowering of the African-American musical tradition.””