An anomaly for his time

Early African-American entrepreneur was innovator, man of many trades

He could give you a shave or take a few inches off the top. Need a new timepiece? He could custom make one. He’d have just the right broach for the portrait he would offer to take. And if you weren’t careful, you could leave his shop on Sperryville’s Main Street with a new piece of property.

James Arthur Engham was “the original entrepreneur,” his grandson James Russell would later write. For decades Engham’s story earned little attention. Now, more than 80 years after his death, the man widely known as J.A. is remembered as a barber, jeweler, farmer, dentist and one of Rappahannock’s most successful African-American businessmen.

Courtesy image
A photo and caption that appeared in the Rappahannock News on Feb. 3, 1983, shows James Engham with his family outside their home on Sperryville’s Main Street around 1910. A west wing was added later.

It would not have been easy path for Engham, a field laborer with only three months of formal education, according to a short account of his life in a book from Rappahannock’s Historical Society.

But much also remains unknown about how he achieved his position in society.

“What I remember mostly was that he worked on watches,” says William L. Jackson, a grandson who along with his older sister Caroline are Engham’s only surviving relatives.

Engham also sold hall clocks that needed expert re-winding each month, and Jackson, 86, who grew up in the house that once held his grandfather’s shop, says his mother, Engham’s daughter Fannie, serviced the clocks after his death in 1935.

Born in 1858, Engham grew up during a period of great change across the United States. The Civil War began in 1861 and ended four years later with emancipation, granting African-Americans the right to vote and enter politics. A survey of black businessmen conducted in 1899 showed that African-Americans were becoming merchants, publishers and money-lenders.

Many flocked to cities in search of work and more freedom, particularly as segregation hardened in the South. In rural areas where they remained, some owned small parcels of farmland, but many struggled as laborers or tenant farmers.

It was amid these challenges that Engham began his career as a barber and watch and clock repairman. He made eyeglasses, too, and later bought a professional camera and tripod and added photography to his repertoire. He sold necklaces, beads and pins so his customers could have adornments to wear in their pictures, writes Russell, who died in 2011. It wasn’t long before he needed a horse and buggy to accommodate the growing demand for his services.

Little is recorded about how Engham transitioned into his trades, but it’s likely he served as an apprentice or traveled around the county to gain the training he would have needed, said Elvatrice Belsches, a historian and guest curator of an exhibition on the African-American experience at the Black History Museum in Richmond.

Engham described himself as a “practical” watchmaker and jeweler in a newspaper advertisement highlighting the purchase of an engraving machine.

The 1900 census lists his occupation as a farmer and silversmith. Ten years later he was a jeweler with his own storefront.

He also dove into real estate, paying $600 in 1915 to buy a grist mill known as Totten’s Mill along Lee Highway west of Sperryville. A water wheel ran the grindstone, a giant slab about eight feet across that Jackson was told his grandfather brought over from England.

In addition to grinding grain into flour, the mill housed a machine for shelling corn and a bottling operation called Try Me that produced a signature strawberry-flavored drink.

Discrimination and racial codes often made it difficult for African-Americans to obtain supplies or property, though Jackson says it was likely his grandfather’s character that made him so innovative and entrepreneurial.

He electrified his home though a personal power plant fueled by rows of batteries and an alcohol- and kerosene-powered generator, making it one of the few homes with electric lights. After buying a classy 1929 Hupmobile that drew the attention of many, he built a hand-powered turntable in his garage to turn it around since there was nowhere to do so in the yard and cars were difficult to reverse.

“He did things that were not actually common at that time for anyone,” says Jackson, who was just five years old when his grandfather died but remembers some things about him vividly.

“He would never come downstairs [in the morning] without a suit and tie on,” Jackson recalls.

Engham married and had four daughters (Fannie’s twin sister died before her first birthday). He bought and sold dozens of pieces of land in his lifetime. The family home where he built up his business is now the site of Before & After cafe.

Most of Engham’s customers were white, Jackson remembers, particularly since few blacks owned gold watches back then. But he did serve a mixed clientele, something not unusual for businessmen with special skills.

Courtesy photo
Today, Engham’s former home and shop house Before & After cafe.

To be so diversified in a small town, however, was unusual, said Belsches.

Like many residents of Rappahannock who’ve overcome social and economic upheaval, Engham’s success owes much to his ingenuity and inventiveness. That’s something Russell, an author and former resident who sought to document the stories of African-Americans in Rappahannock from the time of slavery, highlights in a 1994 tribute to his grandfather in the Rappahannock News.

“His lifetime achievements reflect the story of how one determined Black man faced the harsh challenge of a very difficult era and prevailed.”

The Series:
Part 1 (June 28): Rappahannock is facing an economic transition. But it has a long history of dealing with changes brought by forces beyond the county line.
Part 2 (July 12): Farming in Rappahannock is going through a transition. What challenges does the community face in holding on to its agricultural core?
Part 3 (July 26): What role might the county’s business community play in its future? And, can boosting tourism make a difference in generating revenue and creating jobs?
The Rappahannock Hustle (Aug. 2): The challenges facing people under 40 in Rappahannock and why, despite the hurdles, some are choosing to come here or are returning, mimicking a trend seen in small towns across the United States.
Part 4 (Aug. 9): What are other rural communities doing to adjust to the same demographic and economic changes? Could any of those strategies work here?
Sara Schonhardt
About Sara Schonhardt 20 Articles
Sara Schonhardt is the summer fellow for Foothills Forum. A former staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Indonesia, Sara reported from around Southeast Asia for more than 10 years for the International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Voice of America, among others. Her most recent reporting has focused on rural communities in southern Ohio.

3 Comments

  1. Hello Sara ! my name is Mike Russell (son of James Russell)and I also want to thank you for the great article about our family.I have always been inspired from storys about my ancestors that I learned from my father and from my cousins “Willy Lee”and Carolyn and it continues to give me hope for all of us! sincerely, Mike Russell mikerussell.de

  2. Sara
    Thank you for the excellent article you wrote entitled “An anomaly for his time”, concerning our grandfather.
    From the grandchildren of James Arthur Engham,
    William L. Jackson and Carolyn Jackson Harrison

    • It was a pleasure to learn more about his story and share that with readers. Thanks, William.

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