Charles H. ‘Chuck’ James III, who ran one of nation’s oldest Black-owned businesses, dead at 62

He was the fourth generation in his family to run C.H. James & Co., a Charleston, West Virginia, company founded by his great-grandfather in the 1880s.

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Charles H. “Chuck” James III.

Charles H. “Chuck” James III.

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Charles “Chuck” H. James III, who chaired one of the nation’s oldest Black-owned businesses, has died at 62.

Mr. James, who lived in the Chicago area for extended periods, died last month at his Atlanta home as a result of heart problems, according to his sister Sarah Irby.

The fourth generation in his family to run C.H. James & Co., a Charleston, West Virginia, company founded by his great-grandfather in the 1880s, Mr. James oversaw a business that supplied produce to many restaurants, schools, grocery stores and hospitals in the Mountain State. He was credited with diversifying the company’s holdings.

Charles H. “Chuck” James III (left) with Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Charles H. “Chuck” James III (left) with Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Morehouse College archives

In the early 1980s, he was a banker at Chicago’s Continental Bank, a position he felt was important to his professional development.

“There needs to be an interim step to encourage the next generation to work outside of the business for a while before joining the family business,” he told Black Enterprise magazine in 2010. “A lot of times, kids become adults and [their parents put them through college and give them a job]. They wonder if they could have done any of this on their own or if they are eternally indebted to their father or mother.”

When the family company was started, his relatives bartered with farmers for their produce. Sometimes, they traded using memorial cards for President James A. Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881.

Their travels on West Virginia’s back roads could be treacherous. One of his great-grand uncles was attacked and shot. Another great-grand uncle, seeking to escape racism in the United States, struck out for New Zealand and eventually settled in Brazil.

Mr. James believed he was a steward of what his ancestors had built.

“Each generation of my family has created a bigger and better company,” Mr. James told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “All my forefathers are my heroes — but especially my great-grandfather. When you consider what he did in his time, I really have no excuses.”

After his first stint in Chicago, Mr. James got his master’s of business administration degree from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to West Virginia, where he joined his father Charles H. James II in the family business.

Mr. James expanded the company by becoming a supplier to the Veterans Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Defense Department. He was chief executive officer by the time he was 30, his sister said.

In the 1990s, Mr. James acquired a majority stake in North American Produce Co., which distributed produce to McDonald’s restaurants in western mainland states, Alaska, Hawaii and Japan, and later, Australia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

In 2004, after partnering in 37 Chicago-area Burger King franchises, he returned to the city and served on the boards of Steppenwolf Theatre and Lurie Children’s Hospital.

“He was one of the biggest franchise owners of Burger Kings in the Midwest,” said his friend Lyle Logan, a banker.

Around 2017, Mr. James moved to Atlanta to be closer to family and his 11 Burger King franchises around Birmingham, Alabama. Living there, it also was easier for him to attend events involving Morehouse College, his alma mater, for which he was on the board of trustees.

“He was a highly successful entrepreneurial businessman with an insatiable, intellectual appetite,” said Walter E. Massey, a former president of the Atlanta university. “He could expound on Aristotle and Cicero, Frederick Douglass and DuBois as well as he could on a cash-flow statement and a balance sheet.”

Charles H. “Chuck” James III

Charles H. “Chuck” James III

Provided

Irby said her brother had a warm laugh that drew people to him and that he could talk to anyone about anything. He’d quote from the epic poem “Beowulf” as easily as he did from “The Godfather” movies.

An early adopter of new technologies, he delighted in having one of the first Fitbits and the latest iPhones. Logan said Mr. James enjoyed travel, especially a South African safari with his family. And he loved a well-tailored suit.

He was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha and Sigma Pi Phi fraternities, the Chicago Club and the Economic Club of Chicago.

A virtual celebration of Mr. James’ life is planned Feb. 17.

In addition to his sister Sarah Irby, he is survived by his former wife Jeralyn Williams James, their sons Charles Howell “C.H. IV,” Nelson and Jerome “William” James, his mother Lucia James and sisters Sheila Pleasant and Stephanie Williams.

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