Coe’s first tenured Black professor has left a legacy of shedding positive light

James H. RandallNearly 13 years into retirement, Stead Family Professor Emeritus of English and African American Studies James Randall has allowed himself to overindulge in one of the greatest pleasures in his life — books.

They are his main “addiction” since he has left the classroom behind, and frankly he has never been able to get enough of them. However, at this point in his life, he is ready to let some of his most cherished pieces of literature and culture go. Randall has committed to donate much of his extensive personal collection — which extends beyond books to music albums, video materials and published photo collections  — to Stewart Memorial Library.

This act of charity is in poetic alignment with Randall’s mantra of “shedding positive light in addressing issues” through education, which formed when he was a child in segregated North Carolina during the 1950s.

Both Randall’s mother and father firmly believed in education. While his father only finished sixth grade, and his mother 10th grade, because they needed to work, their goal was always for James and his siblings to go to college. His mother even started teaching him to read before he began formal education. In between working on tobacco farms, doing home chores and going to school, James read any newspaper or book he could get his hands on, so he was ready when the time eventually came for high school and college.

Originally, the plan was to major in mathematics, but as he started at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in 1961, the direction of his education took a hard left to English.

“Suddenly there was a library. Suddenly there were many, many books so I could indulge my hunger for literature,” Randall said.

He still took advanced math courses, but graduated in 1965 with a major in English with a focus on linguistics. His degree provided a path to graduate school at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was the predecessor of Carnegie Mellon University.

As fate would have it, this stop eventually led James to Coe. One of his Carnegie professors, Neal Woodruff, became the Chair of the English department at Coe, and Woodruff was instrumental in recruiting Jim to teach at Coe for the 1969-1970 year while one of the Coe English professors was on sabbatical. 

“I had a close camaraderie with the students and faculty, as well as the community, during that first year,” Randall said. He even met some of his future lifelong friends during that year, such as Coe graduate Vernon Smith ’50 who worked in the lab at St. Luke’s Hospital and was a local lay historian who helped introduce Randall to the area. Vernon’s wife, Phoebe, went on to serve Coe as an ombudsperson for African American students and many Coe graduates have fond memories of the Smith family as gracious hosts and friends. 

While Randall returned to graduate study after his year’s stint at Coe, he soon returned in 1971 when a tenure-track position was open. His initial experience and the opportunity to offer additional African American literature and studies courses on campus made the decision to come back to Cedar Rapids an easy one. And, as he put it, “one year turned into 41 pretty quick.”

Time as a student prepared Randall to become the respected and influential professor his students would value at Coe. The political and social climate of the times augmented his preparation to become an authority on his subject matter.

While at North Carolina A&T, the civil rights movement continued to move as a driving force of change in American society. Students and professors were engaged in the movement so he saw firsthand how to handle academic and civic responsibilities simultaneously.

“This was still the era of segregation and I was at a college for African Americans. I had some very good, innovative and prepared professors. Through them, I could see myself doing something similar that would help mend issues in society,” Randall said. “The opportunity to talk and discuss, to look at important topics that were not only happening in class, but in society, was encouraging.”

In Cedar Rapids, he recognized a swelling of positive activity surrounding civil rights in the community, and set out to make his contributions. At Coe, this was centered around launching the African American studies program.

As he added courses to an established range of African American literature, including African American history, African and Caribbean literature and topics in African American studies and promoted dialogue in and out of the classroom, Randall entrenched himself as a Kohawk who was revered by his students and respected by his peers. He became Coe’s first tenured Black professor in 1976.

Highlights from throughout his tenure include advising a campus magazine spearheaded by Black students. Mwendo (connoting “creative enlightenment” in Swahili) published literature by Coe students, ACM students and drew a number of submissions from across the United States. Randall assisted students when Mwendo organized literary conferences and when it played leading roles in bringing writers to campus. Randall interacted and created friendships with renowned artists like poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Sonia Sanchez and novelists Ishmael Reed and Richard Fewell. He saw his students graduate and become influential professionals with medical, law, professional and graduate educational degrees among other successful careers. But he also found great satisfaction in establishing important courses to support the liberal arts mission and witnessing changes in society locally and nationally.

“I could see progress being made, and I can look back on that with levels of hope,” Randall said.

Randall has seen much change happen throughout his life, and those past experiences continue to be factors today. 

“Education will always be a key to change because there’s a need to bring light to people’s awareness,” he said.

For those expanding their education at Coe, Randall’s name will always be remembered. The legacy he has built remains in people’s minds and is memorialized through his name in thick, black letters on the outside of the James H. Randall Intercultural Center within Gage Memorial Union.

In 2016, President David McInally dedicated the center in Randall’s honor. He remembers the overwhelmingly positive outpouring from the Coe community, as well as the Cedar Rapids community. Throughout the years, he has continued to engage with people and organizations in the Corridor, including his work to develop and support the African American Museum of Iowa.

“It was so reassuring to see different people and groups emerge and share an event like that,” he recalled.

Going forward, Randall is glad to see the college grow and increase the presence of people of color among students, staff and faculty. He supports the commitment of the college to actively pursue ways to continually grow and find new ways to engage with students on campus.

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