June 11, 2006: James Cameron died at the age of 92, from congestive heart failure. He is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Milwaukee.
James Cameron was a civil rights activist. In the 1940s, he founded three chapters of the NAACP. He also served as Indiana’s State Director of the Office of Civil Liberties for eight years during early integration. After moving to Wisconsin, in 1988 he founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.
At the time of his death, he was the only known survivor of a lynching attempt.
In August 1930, when Cameron was 16 years old, he and two older teenage friends, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were charged in Marion with the murder of a young white man, Claude Deeter, during an armed robbery attempt, and with the rape of his girlfriend. (The latter charge was dropped.)
Cameron said he ran away before the man was killed. They were caught quickly and charged with the murder. Cameron and his two friends were taken from where they were being held in jail and lynched by a mob of 2,000-5,000 at the Grant County Courthouse Square. They were hanged from a tree on the square. Cameron witnessed the deaths of his friends but somehow was saved.
In later years he said his neck was scarred from the rope. He heard someone saying he was not guilty, and was taken down before he died from hanging. No one from the mob was arrested or charged with the lynching of Cameron’s friends.
Cameron was convicted at trial in 1931 as an accessory to the murder of Deeter, and served four years of his sentence in a state prison. After Cameron was paroled, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked at Stroh Brewery Company and attended Wayne State University.
In 1991 Cameron was officially pardoned by the state of Indiana.
CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISM:
By the early 1950s, the emotional toll of threats led Cameron to search for a safer home for his wife and five children. Planning to move to Canada, they decided on Milwaukee when he found work there. There Cameron continued his work in civil rights by assisting in protests to end segregated housing in the city. He also participated in both marches on Washington in the 1960s, the first with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the second with Dr. King’s widow Coretta and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Cameron studied history on his own and lectured on the African-American experience. In 1982 he published his autobiography. From 1955 to 1989, Cameron published hundreds of articles and booklets detailing civil rights and occurrences of racial injustices, including “What is Equality in American Life?”; “The Lingering Problem of Reconstruction in American Life: Black Suffrage”; and “The Second Civil Rights Bill”.
After being inspired by a visit with his wife to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel, Cameron founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum in 1988. He used material from his collections to document the struggles of African Americans in the United States, from slavery through lynchings, and civil rights. When he first started collecting materials about slavery, he kept it in his basement. He worked with others to build support for the museum. He was aided by philanthropist Daniel Bader.
His institution, America’s Black Holocaust Museum, started as a grassroots effort. It is now one of the largest African-American museums in the country.
In 2008, the museum’s board of directors announced that the museum would be closed temporarily because of financial problems.
HONORS & LEGACY:
●Wisconsin Public TV produced a documentary entitled A Lynching in Marion.
●Marion, Indiana presented Cameron with a key to the city.
●Cameron was interviewed by BBC, and Dutch and German television.
●In 1999 Cameron was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
●Milwaukee added his name to four blocks of West North Avenue, from North King Drive to North 7th Street, in honor of James Cameron.
●America’s Black Holocaust Museum has become a place of education and reconciliation.
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