The life of James Edwin Campbell

By Jordan Pickens - Special to the Sentinel

James Edwin Campbell

James Edwin Campbell

Courtesy of Jordan Pickens

The grave marker of James Edwin Campbell.

Courtesy of Jordan Pickens

James Edwin Campbell was born on Sept. 28, 1867 in Pomeroy, Ohio to Aletha (“Letha”) Esther Starks and her husband James Edward Campbell, both of whom had been born across the then Virginia before the Civil War. James had two older brothers, Charles William Campbell and John C. Campbell. Very little is known about Campbell’s early life, which he kept private, even from his closest acquaintances. He attended school in Pomeroy, first at the Kerr’s Run Colored School and later graduating from the Pomeroy Academy in 1884.

In 1887, Campbell published Driftings and Gleanings a volume of poetry and essays in standard English. Eight years later he published a collection of Black dialect poems, Echoes from the Cabin and Elsewhere, well before Paul Lawrence Dunbar popularized “Affrilachian” dialect and the Harlem Renaissance. Many of his poems are written in the dialect of his subjects or the vernacular of the time, as well as Standard English.

Campbell returned to Ohio and became involved in Republican Party politics, then became Principal of the Langston School in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. After the second Morrill Act in 1890 established land grant colleges for African American students in states that practiced racial segregation, West Virginia’s legislature decided to establish one for its African American citizens. On August 4, 1891, Campbell married Mary Lewis Champ, in Harrison County, Ohio.

Mary Champ was the daughter of Eveline Thompson Champ and Joseph L. Champ, a teacher and former principal of the African-American schools of Jefferson County, Ohio and later, Parkersburg, West Virginia. Mary Lewis Champ-Campbell graduated from Oberlin College in 1890, and was also a poet in her own right. James Edwin Campbell taught in Rutland for a time before moving to Chicago to write for daily newspapers there in the 1880s and 1890s, including the Chicago Times-Herald. He also became a public speaker and participated in a group publication, the Four O’Clock Magazine, a popular literary magazine.

J. Edwin Campbell served as the first president of West Virginia Colored Institute (now West Virginia State University) from 1892-1894. His wife, Mary Champ-Campbell, was appointed as Instructor of Vocal Music and Drawing in 1892. His successor, lawyer and teacher John H. Hill, oversaw the university’s first commencement, would resign to fight in the Spanish-American War and later return to teach.

While visiting family near Kerr’s Run, Campbell died of pneumonia on Jan. 26, 1896. He was survived by his parents and wife. He is buried at the Beech Grove Cemetery. The Meigs County Historical Society erected a historical marker in his honor which was located at Water Works park in Pomeroy, but has since then been damaged and not repaired.

Being Valentine’s Day, I thought I would share a few of his poems.

Note: Some are written in Standard English and others are written in Affrilachian dialect.

Seranade Song

Hist, Dolores, I am coming,

Gently my guitar I’m thrumming,

‘Neath thy casement softly humming,

Dolores, O, carissima!

All the world but me is sleeping,

Nothing but the stars is peeping,

Up to thee my soul is leaping,

Dolores, O, carissima!

Rise, and wide thy shutter flinging,

List, O list, my soul is singing,

All my soul to love’s time swinging,

Dolores, O, carissima!

Outward from thy casement leaning,

Turn thine eyes upon me beaming,

Twin stars thro’ the darkness gleaming,

Dolores, O, carissima!

Nightly ‘neath thy casement singing,

All my soul with passion ringing,

Up to thee my soul I’m flinging,

Dolores, O, carissima!

Thro’ the summer’s roses hoping,

Thro’ the autumn’s dead leaves groping,

Where the vine’s dead leaves are dropping,

Dolores, O, carissima!

Still, my love, O still thou’rt sleeping,

While my soul for thee is weeping,

While Love’s hand the strings is sweeping,

Dolores, O, carissima!

When, O, when, this long sleep breaking,

Will thy love, to life awaking,

On thy lips my kisses taking,

Know thy lover, me, Francisco?

A Love Dream

I know ‘twas a dream, yet sweet was the theme,

And I strive to recall its splendor —

My soul upward leaps as Thought backward sweeps

To my dream so warm and so tender.

Where sea billows toss ‘neath the bright Southern cross,

By the sea lay I idly dreaming,

While the stars burned a way from Night unto Day

And the waves like helmets were gleaming.

A maid came and stood at the neck of the wood

And her locks on the Night were streaming,

She was tall as pines that rock in the winds,

And her eyes like Orion were gleaming.

She came to me there and caught up her hair

And spread it a mantle above me —

O my soul grew sick and the hot air thick

As she whispered: “Come sweet, now love me.”

I kissed the red mouth of th’ passionate South,

Till my lips with kissing grew husky,

I looked in the eyes that were storm-charged skies,

‘Neath the cloud of her thick locks dusky.

Then up the Day came with cohorts of flame

And the Soul of the South Wind left me,

And Joy fled away with the Rise of the Day,

For Day, of my Love had bereft me.

I know ‘twas a dream, yet sweet was the theme,

And I strive to recall its splendor —

My soul upward leaps as Thought backward sweeps

To my dream so warm and so tender.

Oh Sweetheart Sweet

O, sweetheart, sweet of the Long Ago,

Maid of the blue, blue eyes;

You went one day like a Spring-time snow

And you left me here, ah, long ago,

To dream of you there in Paradise,

My sweetheart, sweet of the Long Ago.

O, sweetheart, sweet, so long are the years,

Filled with a sad, sad pain;

There’s little of laughter, much of tears,

So weak are hopes, so strong are the fears,

So much of loss, so little of gain

In the harvest of all the years!

But through my pain and thro’ all my tears

One thing, sweetheart, I know:

When done with all the long, dreary years,

And shed the last of Life’s bitter tears,

I shall find you, my sweetheart, I know.

Then shall I forget all the toilful years

And drown in the sea of love my fears,

My sweetheart, sweet of the Long Ago!

To read more of James Edwin Campbell’s poetry, visit

As the old Ohio flows….

James Edwin Campbell Edwin Campbell Courtesy of Jordan Pickens

The grave marker of James Edwin Campbell. grave marker of James Edwin Campbell. Courtesy of Jordan Pickens of Jordan Pickens

By Jordan Pickens

Special to the Sentinel

Jordan Pickens is a local historian and educator.

Jordan Pickens is a local historian and educator.