Born near Athens, Georgia on May 31, 1919, James Henry Aycox, also known as Henry Aycox, was the fifth child of Earl Aycox and Daisy Witcher Aycox and older brother to my grandfather. When Henry was around eleven years old, his parents removed the family from rural Oglethorpe County, Georgia to the industrial town of Gadsden, Alabama. (The Aycoxes story as recorded so far can be found here and here.) At that time, there was no high school for African American students in Gadsden. The founding of Central High School in 1934 means that Henry and his sister, Maggie, would be the first of the siblings to receive a high school diploma.
In 1936, a new K-12 school was build for African American students and named Carver High School, after Dr. George Washington Carver of Tuskegee fame. Henry, seventeen at the time, wasted no time in establishing himself as a part of the school leadership. The following year, Henry traveled with a group of delegates to Montgomery, AL, as part of the Older Boys Conference, where he served as secretary. The delegates were also in attendance at the annual Alabama principals conference, where one of the topics of discussion was “the possible value of the new national education outlook among Negroes to the principals and teachers in Alabama high schools” (New York Age, Dec 4, 1937, pg. 11). Additionally, that fall, Henry made waves as quarterback for the inaugural football team of Carver High, the Wildcats. During their first game of the season, the Wildcats played Barber Seminary and beat them soundly, with a score of 19-0. One of the Aycox brothers also played forward for the Wildcats basketball team in 1938. It’s not yet determined if it was Henry or his brother, William “Bill”. In 1938, as a rising senior, Henry had a leading role in the school’s nativity play, On the Road to Bethlehem, which was deemed “impressive” (The Chicago Defender, Jan 1, 1938, pg 6). Henry finished out his term at Carver as class president of the class of 1938. Their motto was “Give to the world the best you have and the best will come back to you.” Bright eyed and ambitious, the senior class departed the halls of Carver, determined to make their mark.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world wasn’t so promising for young African Americans in the 1930s, particularly in the
south. Schools were still segregated, with no promise of changing anytime soon. Job opportunities were very limited as well, with many black institutions, particularly in the South, offering programs strong in practical trades. The State Agriculture and Mechanical Institute, later known as Alabama A&M University, was no exception. As Booker T. Washington had admonished forty-three years earlier, Henry cast down his bucket where he was and settled on learning to become a tailor. He studied at the State A&M Institute from 1938 until 1942, when he received his certificate in tailoring. He was the first known individual in his family to receive a college education and only the second to complete high school.
When Henry stepped out of the halls of the State Agriculture and Mechanical Institute, it was to a world at unrest. The “War to End All Wars” had not lived up to its name and the United States was drawn into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Not one to be left behind, Henry traded his books for a uniform and enlisted in the United States Army on August 15, 1942 in Ft. Myers, Virginia.
For the next four years, Henry served in the Armed Forces. It’s not yet known where he was stationed or whether he saw combat. Unfortunately, the Armed Forces during World War II was still largely segregated and African Americans had to overcome discrimination and overt racism to be recognized as men, women, and citizens while fighting for the democracy they rarely got to experience on American soil. It wasn’t until July 26,1948, three years after the end of World War II, that President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which called for equal treatment of all serving in the Armed Forces, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religious background. The Armed Forces wouldn’t complete its desegregation process until the 1950s.
On February 14, 1946, James Henry Aycox was honorably discharged from the services of the United States Army. The close of the second World War ushered in a second wave of the Great Migration. Many individuals who had served in the military came home, only to realize that while they had been hailed as heroes abroad, their own country still didn’t welcome them. Such was the case of George Dorsey, a fellow veteran who was lynched just thirty miles from where Henry was born. Disillusioned with the conditions in the South, many African Americans left for slightly calmer waters in the North and Midwest, often joining relatives who had already left during the earlier migration movements. Henry was one of them. His older brother, Benjamin, had already relocated to Philadelphia and started a family there. Henry settled on nearby Washington, D.C. But it wasn’t enough to just live in a new place. Perhaps feeling the possibilities of starting anew, Henry decided to go back to school. This time, he had the opportunity to study a non-trade curriculum. He chose to do it at American University, becoming the first in his family to attend a predominantly white institution.
Henry started out studying Business Administration, per the 1950 AU Talon yearbook, but by his graduation in 1951, he finished with a B.S. in Social Science. Following his graduation, he went to work for the United States Postal Service, where he stayed until his retirement in 1979. Henry married and raised two children in D.C. His younger brother (my grandfather) joined him there, also marrying and raising a family. James Henry Aycox passed away in 1988.
An ironic postscript to this story is that I’m now employed at the same university where Henry obtained his degree. It’s a few days late for Black History Month, but I still think his story is worth sharing.