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James Haskins: Biography

James S. Haskins, professor in the UF Department of English, was a social activist, an educator and an award winning author of over 100 adult and children's books. His book, "The Cotton Club," was made into a major film in 1984.

James Haskins

Born Demopolis, AL 1941 - died New York City, NY, July 6, 2005

Young Jim Haskins

Biography

The Early Years

Born in Alabama in 1940, and schooled in Boston, Washington D.C., New Mexico and his home state, James S. Haskins was a prolific author of nonfiction books for adults and children, educator and tireless social activist.  He grew up a member of a close-knit and loving community of  parents, aunts, uncles and cousins in a compound of eight houses, in the small town of Demopolis.  Though Haskins was raised in “the heart of a particular area that did not subjugate Blacks as much as the people of other counties,” (Hatch, 78) he attended a segregated school with limited financial and academic resources.  It was fortunate that he had creative adults to foster in him a love of learning, including a storytelling aunt and a group of dedicated teachers who supplemented the school curriculum with their own books.  His Aunt Cindy instilled in young Haskins a sense of wonder and curiosity for folktales and magic that expressed itself in later works such as The Conjure Men, while his teachers creatively wove foreign languages such as Latin and African American history into their curriculum, making for a rich education for the budding activist and writer.   Julia Carter Brown Haskins also supported his thirst for knowledge, buying supermarket encyclopedias for her son to read because blacks were not allowed to use the local public library.  Julia’s white employer supported his zeal for reading, supplying an ample number of books courtesy of her own library card.

 

In 1952, Julia and Henry Haskins separated, and Julia took her twelve-year old son to live with family in Roxbury, Massachusetts.  Haskins was one of twenty-five black students that attended the academically prestigious Boston Latin School, and often had Harvard professor moonlighting as his teachers.  While the schools embraced diversity, the neighborhoods were segregated by various ethnic groups.  Haskins had a love of music and played the trumpet, but also aspired to teach, a career supported by his mother. After graduating high school, Haskins could have stayed in the northeast to attend Brandeis University with a scholarship, but followed his mother’s wishes and tradition, returning to Alabama to attend college.

 

The Activist and Student

Haskins enrolled at Alabama State College (ASU) in Montgomery around 1959, during the tumultuous time of civil rights protests and activism.   Only four years earlier, the arrest of an unknown African American seamstress on a Montgomery bus lit the fires of dissent across the nation.   Rosa Parks later said in her book co-authored with Haskins that she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger because she “was tired of giving in to white people.”  Like many students across the nation, Haskins and his fellow students at Alabama State College participated in the sit-ins and demonstrations. On February 25, 1960, nine ASU students attempted to eat in the white lunchroom of the Montgomery courthouse, and were expelled from college at Governor Patterson’s urging.  As Haskins remembered, “I got involved with a whole bunch of guys like Bernard Lee and Floyd  Coleman, and we were called ‘outside rabble-rousers’”. Haskins was expelled too, but was offered  a scholarship at Georgetown through the Montgomery Improvement Assocation.    After completing a bachelor of science degree in psychology, Haskins returned to ASU and earned a bachelor of arts degree in history.  Haskins also earned a master’s degree in social psychology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

to be continued...

Sources:

 

Haskins, Jim. "Autobiography."  Something About the Author. Vol. 132 Detroit: Gale, 2002. 91-101.

"James S. Haskins." Something About the Author. Vol. 132 Detroit: Gale, 2002.84-90.

Hatch, James V. "James S. Haskins."  Artist and Influence XI (1992): 77-91.

Cobb, William. "Memorial: Jim Haskins."  First Draft, the Journal of the Alabama Writers' Forum. 11.2 (Fall 2005): 13.

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