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Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo of Thelma James
Photo by Bill Mitchum

Thelma James
1985 awardee, Detroit (Wayne County), folklife educator, collector and archive founder

Thelma James (1899-1988) was a teacher, collector, and archivist of urban folk traditions. (1)She received her B.A. in 1920 and M.A. in 1923 from the University of Michigan. In 1923 she joined the English department at what later became Wayne State University while taking graduate courses in folklore at the University of Chicago. This same energy sustained her through her long career.

With a colleague, Emily Gardner, Ms. James was involved in the settlement-house movement and conducted folklore-collecting projects with students in Detroit. Concurrently, she supervised other student collectors and archived urban, ethnic, and occupational traditions in the Wayne State University Folklore Archive, one of the first folklore archives in the United States, which she helped establish with Ms. Gardner in 1939. For six decades, this archive had been a valuable resource to scholars and students of Detroit cultures and traditions. In 1999 the Wayne State University Folklore Archive was disassembled and the collections dispersed to the Walter Reuther Archives (Wayne State University), the MSU Museum Archives, and the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association.

Ms. James was a pioneer in her interest and recognition of the tremendous wealth and diversity in urban traditions, and through her efforts many traditions in Detroit were recorded on Edison wire recordings and preserved. Although she published very little, she devoted considerable energy and intellect to her students and to her profession. Throughout her career, Ms. James also held offices in the American Folklore Society and the Michigan Folklore Society, and she was elected a Fellow of the American Folklore Society. In 1967, after 45 years of teaching, she retired from Wayne State University.

Ms. James's legacy to the residents of Michigan and her colleagues in folklore are her rich folklore collections made in Detroit, collections and publications of her students, and the scholarly endeavors she inspired in those who followed her in the field of folklore study. Upon retirement, she bequeathed funds to the Wayne State University Press to be used in the publication of folklore studies.

(1) This entry based on the essay by Janet Langlois, "James, Thelma Grey (1899-1988)," p. 403, in American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Harold Brunvand. Camden: Garland, 1996.

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