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Register of the Papers of



1.75 ft.

MSS 12


Monique Bourque

August 1990


James Samuel Stemons was born in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1870 to former slave parents.  Six years later he moved with his family to Kansas.  In 1893, after being refused a job because of his race, Stemons set out for Boston to begin a crusade for Negro rights.

Stemons wrote editorials, articles, and pamphlets promoting industrial opportunities for the Negro as a solution to racial strife.  He traveled extensively through New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio lecturing on the subject of race relations.  In Cleveland he founded the Industrial Rights League, a church-related organization for the promotion of equal opportunities for Negroes in industry.  He settled in Philadelphia in ca. 1900.  In 1900 Stemons wrote a semi-Autobiographical novel, "Jay Ess" but was never successful in getting it published.  In 1906 he had privately published a short work, "The Key," which set forth a plan for creating harmony between races through equalization of opportunities in industrial employment.

Stemons supported himself in the early 1900's at a series of menial jobs, primarily janitorial.  In 1908 he became a clerk in the United States Post Office in Philadelphia, where he apparently remained until his retirement.  He joined the Mutual Association of Post Office Employees, which was formed in 1913, and during that year he served as its director and as an organizer.  After this he participated little in the union.  He felt that union activities took up too much time and interfered with his work as a journalist and civic activist, which he considered to be his real vocation.

In 1906 Stemons became the editor of the short-lived Philadelphia Courant.  Disputes with one of the owners over the direction and editorial content of the paper prompted his resignation later that year.  In 1907 Stemons began publication of his own paper, The Pilot, with the financial backing of a local white philanthropist.  The paper ran from January 1907 to March 1909, when it was suspended due to lack of operating funds.

Stemons campaigned on behalf of African Americans in the editorial columns of both newspapers and in the organizational arena.  He corresponded with local politicians in the Democratic and Republican parties, and spoke on behalf of the latter on several occasions in local elections.  In 1912 Stemons began working as Field Secretary for the Joint Organization of the Association for Equalizing Industrial Opportunities and the League of Civic and Political Reform in Philadelphia, whose aim was to "suppress Corner Lounging, Rowdyism, Public Indecency, Vicious Resorts and Political Crookedness among Colored Citizens," and to "Broaden the opportunities of Colored Citizens for Honest Labor at Living Wages."  It is not clear how long his association with this organization lasted.

Stemons was also interested in gadgetry.  Between 1906 and 1909 he invented a street indicator for use on trolley cars and attempted to obtain a patent for it; he was apparently unsuccessful.  He also attempted unsuccessfully to patent a black doll.

In 1906, Stemons married a widow named Mary Whaley, whom he had known for some time.  She died in 1914, after which Stemons' sister, Mary Stemons Johnson, and their mother came to live with him in Philadelphia.

Little information is available about Stemons' life after 1922.  In 1928 he married a thirty year old teacher from Hannibal, Missouri named Arizona Leedonia Cleaver.  Stemons died in 1959 at Philadelphia's Graduate Hospital.


The collection was acquired through purchases in 1973 and 1974.  Listed below are a number of publications by Stemons which the library holds.  See the card catalog for additions.

Below the Belt.  Philadelphia: Reading Press, 1942.

A Cry From the Oppressed: A Plea for the Industrial Rights of the Colored Race in the Northern States.  Buffalo: Tent and Temple Co., 1897.

The Korean Mess, and Some Correctives.   Boston: Chapman and Grimes, 1952.

A Movement to Improve the Status of Colored Employees in the Philadelphia Postal Service: "Come Let Us Reason Together," A Message to Every Colored Employee. Philadelphia: The Summer Press, 1922.


The James Samuel Stemons Papers document the efforts of an African American writer to establish a reputation for himself as a spokesman for his race, and his frustration with the lack of recognition accorded him by Philadelphia newspapers, newspaper editors, politicians, and clergymen.

The bulk of the personal correspondence in Series One consists of letters between Stemons and his sister and confidante, Mary Stemons Johnson.  This correspondence traces the development of Stemons' thought on particular issues, his plans for his career, and his participation in civic organizations.

This series also provides considerable personal information about Stemons, as he freely discussed with his sister his relationship with his wife, his dislike of a wide variety of individuals, and his efforts to find a cure for the neurasthenia and nervous depression which plagued him.  In addition he offered copious advice to Mary on her life and on the essays which she wrote for The Pilot.  Most clearly illustrated are Stemons' struggles to establish The Pilot as a leading black paper and himself as a social commentator.  Some of the correspondence is from well-known social and political figures such as Booker T. Washington, Woodrow Wilson and Marian Harland.  Better represented are local politicians, journalists and clergymen such as Henry W. Wilbur, General Secretary of the General Conference of the Religious Society of Friends, and Rolfe Cobleigh, Associate Editor of the Congregationalist and Christian World.  These letters are of interest in the examination both of Stemons' personal ambitions, and of the interplay of religious leaders and organizations and the press in Philadelphia politics in the early years of the twentieth century.

Also notable are a series of letters between Stemons and U.S. Postmaster, Philadelphia, Col. George E. Kemp.  These date from 1900-1922 and are concerned with Stemons' demotion from special clerk to regular clerk and with discrimination against Blacks in the postal service.

Series Two, Family Correspondence, is of value primarily in illuminating the life of Mary Stemons Johnson.  Of particular interest in this regard are letters between Mary and her estranged husband, John T. Johnson.  The letters in this series provide information about Mary S. Johnson's close friendships with other women as well as furnishing some details about the extended Stemons family.

Series Three, Miscellaneous Papers, consists primarily of flyers and carbon copies of statements associated with organizations of which Stemons was a member or with which he had some connection, such as delivering an address to members.  These materials have little informational value but are of some visual interest.  The fragments of correspondence contained in this series are of interest to analysis of Stemons' views on race relations in particular.  Of greatest interest in this series are the miscellaneous personal documents, which provide details on Stemons' life not available elsewhere.

Much of Series Four, Writings and Speeches, consists of the manuscript of Stemons' novel "Jay Ess."  While it is not certain how much of the hero's experiences are fictionalized representations of Stemons' own, it seems clear that Stemons infused his hero with ambitions and viewpoints very similar if not identical to his own.

Oversized materials include fragments of writings by Stemons, some of which also appear elsewhere in the collection, a printed copy of a 1909 address by Stemons to the A.M.E. Preachers' meeting, and an undated broadside from the Mail Order School, Denver, Colorado.

The newspaper clippings in Series Four are of interest in that they include several acerbic exchanges between Stemons and the editor of the Philadelphia American over local politics and Stemons' loyalty to the Republican Party.  The speeches are of primary interest in that they provide relatively polished, public statements of the views and prescriptions held by Stemons, the development of which may be observed elsewhere in the collection.


The James Samuel Stemons Papers are arranged in four series as follows: I. Personal Correspondence; II. Family Correspondence; III. Miscellaneous Papers; IV. Writings and Speeches.

SERIES I. PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE, 1894-1922 and n.d., (.75 ft.).  This series is arranged chronologically.

The series consists of letters between Stemons and his sister, Mary Stemons Johnson, and letters to Stemons from friends and business associates.  In some cases Stemons' initial letters or replies are included.

SERIES II. FAMILY CORRESPONDENCE, 1901-1912 and n.d., (.25 ft.).  This series is arranged alphabetically by correspondent.

The bulk of this series is composed of letters to and from Mary Stemons Johnson.  Other correspondents include her husband, John T. Johnson, James Samuel Stemons' wife Mary (Mamie) Whaley Stemons, and other friends and family members.

SERIES III. MISCELLANEOUS PAPERS, 1903-1920 and n.d., (.25 ft.).

The series contains correspondence fragments, personal documents relating to Stemons and to other family members such as a photocopy of the application for a marriage license filed by James S. Stemons and his second wife Arizona L. Cleaver.  Miscellaneous personal documents include notes taken by an unknown person from a 1979 interview with Arizona L. Cleaver, Stemons' second wife, and materials relating to Stemons' being charged in 1912 with assault and battery.  Also present are miscellaneous business cards, notes, an incomplete application for the United States Civil Service Examination in the name of Ailenwill S. Jackson, and flyers and leaflets from organizations such as the Association for Equalizing Industrial Opportunities and the League of Civic Reform, the Socialist Literary Society, and the Southern League Beneficial Association.

SERIES IV. WRITINGS AND SPEECHES, 1900-1922 and n.d. (.5 ft.).  This series is arranged by record type.  Writings are arranged alphabetically by subject or organization for which they were produced.  Speeches are arranged alphabetically by the organization or occasion for which they were intended.  Writings and publications not by Stemons have been placed at the end of the writings, as has a folder of newspaper clippings which includes articles about African Americans by a number of authors and letters by Stemons to the Philadelphia American, with the editor's replies.  Writings include a manuscript of Stemons' semi-autobiographical novel, "Jay Ess," of which much of chapters one through four are missing.

The box list of the Register of the Papers of James Samuel Stemons is six pages long.