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Wilmington civil rights leader and Buffalo Soldier James Gilliam dies at 95

Delaware Public Media

Prominent Wilmington civil rights activist and decorated Army veteran James H. Gilliam, Sr. died Thursday. He was 95. Delaware Public Media's Annie Ropeik has this remembrance.



Gilliam was one of the last surviving members of the predominantly African-American regiment of Buffalo Soldiers in WWII, and also served as a captain in the Korean War.


Last year, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons presentedGilliam with reissued service medals, including the Bronze Star, that had been lost after WWII. At that event, Gilliam recalled to Delaware Public Media the hypocrisy and discrimination that faced black service members.

"They are very, very good at what we call selective amnesia," he said. "They remember what they want to remember and forget very easily the reality of what happened."

Hear James Gilliam's voice from the Delaware Public Media archives.

Gilliam was one of the few peacemakers allowed to march the streets of Wilmington during riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. He went on to work on community development, affordable housing and diversity issues in Delaware's largest city and around New Castle County.



"He took all of that and said that if in fact we were to be a better, more inclusive community, we needed an organization that was a full-time advocate for people of color and their ability to secure economic self-sufficiency, parity, power and civil rights in 21st-century America," says Tony Allen. He helped Gilliam found that organization, the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League.


Allen counts Gilliam as his best friend and a tireless mentor who always inspired his community to keep working for change.


"I saw Jim stand courageously with significant intellect and real content to people in the highest levels of the private sector and government and in the grassroots community," Allen says. "He was that well-respected in so many spheres of influence in our community."


Now, those community and government leaders are remembering Gilliam too.


In a statement, state Sen. Margaret Rose Henry of Wilmington's second district calls Gilliam "a giant of a man, a prophet whose wise counsel was sought by many [and who] opened doors for so many in our community."

And Gov. Jack Markell wrote in a statement, "Jim was a hero – not just because of his actions during times of war, but because of his tireless efforts at home, in his community."

Markell points to Gilliam's leadership in the area of affordable housing. Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams remembers his service there, too, writing in a statement that "Mr. Gilliam tirelessly fought for social justice while serving as a voice for the voiceless."

Wilmington city council president Theo Gregory remembers working with Gilliam as a young attorney, when Gilliam was the county's director of Community Development and Housing.

"We are judged by the good we do for our fellow human beings and we are remembered for the work we do to improve our communities," Gregory said in a statement. "Mr. G was a powerful figure in our state who influenced generations of Delawareans to live their lives with pride."

Sen. Coons and others knew Gilliam by that nickname, too. Coons remembers working with Gilliam on diversity initiatives as county executive. In a statement, he called Gilliam "a pillar of our state."

"Throughout my career in public service, I never once left a meeting with Mr. G without a list of things I needed to do better, a sense of urgency about what needed to be done, and the certainty that Mr. G would support me along the way," Coons said. “I will greatly miss the many conversations we shared together ... and his willingness to challenge me – and everyone else – to do better.”

Rep. John Carney wrote in a statement that he'd had lunch with Gilliam recently at Cokesbury Village Retirement Community.

"He was as engaged and animated as ever in challenging me to do the right thing and take on those in Congress who were getting in the way of progress for all Americans."

And Sen. Tom Carper says Gilliam lived by a rule of "do what's right."

"Delaware is a better place because he was in it," Carper said in a statement. "The best way we can honor his memory is to live by our better conscience, like he encouraged me and so many to do."

Gilliam leaves behind a daughter, Patrice, and several grand- and great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his son, Jim Jr., and wife Louise. Funeral arrangements have reportedly not been set.


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