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Photo by Bill Mitchum
1985 awardee, Detroit (Wayne County), folklife educator, collector and
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
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
(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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