GENEVA — Over 89 years, James “Jim” Richmond Jr.’s life certainly had many chapters. As Don Golden, senior pastor at Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, put it, Richmond wasn’t a “one-trick pony.”
He was a successful businessman, working his way up from changing tires to becoming manager of the Geneva Firestone store, only the second African-American manager in America at that time.
He was civic-minded, playing a role in the founding of Geneva’s NAACP chapter in 1959 and later the African-American Men’s Association. He also served on Geneva’s zoning board for 40 years.
He was faith filled, helping to organize Mt. Olive Church in the early 1950s. And he loved music, starting the church choir and later in 1974 spinning records as he launched the city’s first gospel music radio show.
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However, a common theme that wove through Richmond Jr.’s life was going out of his way for the person or cause in which he believed.
“Our phone would ring all the time with people that needed help or advice,” recalled his son, Jim Richmond III of Farmington. Although his father was a busy businessman and civic leader who, with his wife Peggy, was raising four children, he would push fatigue aside and answer each call.
“He just kept going and going,” his son said. “I saw times he was dead tired but somebody would call and he’d say to us, ‘I’ll be back.’ “
James Richmond Jr. was an elder statesman in the Black community, a status perhaps best exemplified by the fact his fellow church members referred to him as “Father.” Golden said it wasn’t a clerical moniker, rather a gesture of deep admiration.
“It’s normal to have ‘Mothers’ [in Black churches],” Golden said, “but he was the only one who has ever obtained the status of ‘Father’ in our church.”
A witness to history
Richmond Jr. died Jan. 2. He had been in a nursing home since May but prior to that had been living independently in a North Street apartment for about four years after moving from the family home on North Exchange Street.
His life mirrored the tumultuous arc of his people’s history. He was born in Raleigh, W.V. in 1931 to James A. Richmond, a Black man who owned a shoe shop and was a coal miner, and Mary “Maggie” Burns, a homemaker and full-blooded Cherokee Indian. Richmond Jr. was their sole son among six children.
Richmond III said his father experienced segregation, though perhaps not to the extent as in the deep South. While growing up, he worked at a whites-only country club and had to find colored-only fountains to drink from and colored-only restaurants to eat at.
But his outgoing temperament, inclination toward optimism and strong work ethic positioned him for change.
“It would have been easy for him to hate but he never did and taught us to be respectful,” his son said. “He’d say, ‘There’s good and bad in every situation.’”
After high school Richmond Jr. attended the Air Conditioning Training Corp. in Youngstown, Ohio. His son said his parents (his mother also was from West Virginia) arrived in Geneva on a whim. His mother’s brother was stationed at the Seneca Army Depot and spoke highly of the area; the couple visited in 1951 and decided to make the city their home. Richmond Jr.’s first local job was with Finger Lakes Dry Cleaning.
In 1953 he started working for Firestone and would rise through the ranks to become manager of the store at the corner of Lake and Exchange streets in 1966. He retired in 1982, and a newspaper clipping about his party at Moon’s lounge noted Mayor Giles Reynolds and his wife were among the guests. The article said his post-retirement plans included selling cars, which he did at Del Rossa Ford in Lyons.
Richmond III traces his father’s work ethic to his grandfather, who missed only three days in 43 years while toiling in the mines.
“(My father) said, ‘You have to work hard for what you want,’” Richmond III said. “That’s what he believed in and that’s what he did.”
He also was a staunch supporter of education and made sure his four children got the best grades they could, his son recalled. In fact, that’s why Richmond Jr. signed on to help found the African-American’s Men’s Association, which among its missions helps provide college scholarships.
“He knew that a lot of the Black people in the area didn’t have money to send their kids to school and there was talent,” his son said. “He wanted to give them a chance.”
A relationship builder
Richmond Jr. was not a physically imposing man; he probably stood 5 feet, 7 inches and was of slight build. But he was never out-dressed and used his drive, intellect and personality to compensate for many things, said Golden — including the fact he was Black and not well off.
Golden said he became “larger than life” for those reasons, also because he was affable and never intimidated by a person’s position.
“He understood in order to make a change you had to be willing to approach and interact with the change-makers,” he said, adding that confidence and respect extended to all. “It didn’t matter if you were a young poor person or a professor at one of the colleges. He treated everyone the same.”
Years of selling tires honed his father’s skills in building relationships, his son said. Golden said Richmond Jr. never stopped selling — and up until his death was usually the top ticket seller for various church fundraisers.
“No one else was even close,” Golden said.
Victor Nelson met Richmond Jr. in 1996 when he moved to Geneva and was recruited by him to join the African-American Men’s Association. Richmond was the group’s treasurer and remained active with all of its projects, even in his later years.
In addition to building scholarship funds for Black students, he was keen on connecting young adults to business and management positions, Nelson noted.
A letter from a former tire customer illustrated the strong relationships Richmond Jr. built as a businessman.
“They said they always felt safe riding in their car because Mr. Richmond sold them their tires,” said Nelson.
Meeting his hero
Richmond Jr.’s confidence served him well in June 1963, when he attended a luncheon at Keuka College in honor of a visit by Martin Luther Jr.; King’s wife, Coretta, was there as well. MLK had delivered a 35-minute baccalaureate address at the Yates County college.
Golden said Richmond Jr. went up and introduced himself to the civil rights leader and ended up speaking with him for about 45 minutes.
It was a thrill of a lifetime, said his son, who also could have gone to hear King but chose all-star baseball practice instead. It’s a decision he regrets to this day.
The memory of that meeting sustained his father, who left with a luncheon program signed by King and his wife that is now a family heirloom.
“He talked about that (meeting) until the day he passed,” Richmond III said.
King’s nonviolent approach — of talking and working things out vs. resorting to violence — resonated with Richmond Jr. His son said some of this past summer’s race incidents saddened his father, who asked, “Where is Martin Luther King Jr. when you need him?”
He added that his father believed in protest and marches to show strength and support but did not condone tearing down businesses or hurting people.
“For him, that was not a way to get to the end result,” Richmond III said.
Helping to create a chapter of the NAACP was his means to address racial issues locally. It was chartered in February 1960 and Richmond Jr. served as vice president with his wife as secretary.
News clippings show the chapter in the 1960s tackling such issues as limited housing for Blacks, school segregation and an effort to hire more Black teachers. A June 1964 article noted 29 people met at the Richmond home to discuss a petition against Valerio’s Delicatessen for discrimination and disrespect toward Blacks. In 1967, Richmond was on a committee that was discussing with City Council the possibility of using the former Dixon Homes area as a recreation site.
In 1968-69, when he was president and the NAACP was focused on school integration, Richmond Jr. praised the school board and its superintendent “for trying to break the century-old idea that children should attend separate schools merely because they live in different geographical areas.
“I believe that Negro children who are deprived of white companions in school are being discriminated against. But what is more important, white children who do not play with Negro children are not getting the kind of education which will prepare them for life,” he said (Geneva Daily Times, Aug. 1, 1968).
Golden said it was Richmond who prompted his decision to join the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. in 1995.
“I had never done anything in the community like that, but I was inspired by the work he and others at Mt. Olive were doing,” Golden said.
Edith Wormley was friends with Richmond Jr.’s daughter Rhonda and refers to him as her “godfather.” As his daughter’s friend who often played at his house or was treated by him to ice cream at Mac’s Drive-in, she had a more personal view of the man.
But Richmond Jr. still inspired her — notably in her quest to become the Geneva school board’s first member of color in the early 1990s.
“Anything that Jim did he would go person to person,” said Wormley, assistant director of higher education opportunities at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. “He was a people person. He would get the word out.”
For Golden, Richmond Jr.’s leading by example and commitment to equality made a difference in so many people’s lives. If no one else wanted to take on a project, he would — even if it was something apolitical such as starting a gospel music radio show (Wormley would later help him as a co-host),
In 1974 the “Sunday Morning Gospel Hour” debuted from 8 to 9 a.m. Sundays on WECQ-Geneva. Richmond III said whenever the family would visit West Virginia and hear gospel tunes on the radio, his father pined for such a show in Geneva. It took several requests of various stations until WECQ agreed to host the gospel hour, for which Richmond Jr. supplied his own records and wrote his own material.
In a Dec. 10, 1977, Finger Lakes Times article, he said he founded the show for two reasons.
“There are a lot of old blacks in this community who grew up in other communities where they could hear gospel music at some point on Sunday. For this reason I felt that it should be offered in Geneva,” he said. “I also feel that it gives the younger blacks a chance to learn of their heritage and to educate other members in the community of our culture.”
His love of music rubbed off on his son. Richmond III has played with a number of local bands and is currently a member of Rochester’s Prime Time Funk. He has been a saxophone player, vocalist, songwriter, lyricist, record producer and bandleader and currently is the music director for the Rochester Music Hall of Fame.
The fact that Richmond Jr. helped found both the NAACP and a gospel music show was not incongruent at all.
“A lot of efforts started in this community, if not engineered by him, he was right there putting his hand on it, pushing, cajoling, whatever he needed to do to promote equity,” Golden said. “He used what God gave him for the advancement of God’s creation ... not just for church folk but for everyone.”
Wormley called her godfather “a cornerstone” of Geneva and “a man of many hats” who was always active and accepted socially, politically and spiritually.
“He was the first to do many things,” she said. “He would look at his abilities and he did not let his color decide his future.”
Beth Henderson’s parents, John and Rose Kenney, were good friends with Richmond Jr. and his wife; she recalled their lively social life with dinners and picnics. Her father and Richmond were part of an informal men’s group that met and tried to help young Black children.
She said he was an excellent role model and although he had a soft, gentle nature it camouflaged persistence and strength.
“No matter what he did, what he said, everybody listened,” she said. “He stuck with everything until he could no longer do it anymore. He was very forceful.”
Nelson agreed that behind his kind-hearted demeanor Richmond Jr. had a “no-nonsense” streak.
“He would get right to the point, get to the meat (of the matter), take care of it and then it was time to go,” he said.
In the month since his father’s death, Richmond III has had some time to reflect on the man’s life. Those sharing condolences have often used the word respect; if his father had a guiding philosophy it may have been that. Richmond Jr. told his children they had to respect their elders, but also earn respect for themselves.
“He said, ‘You respect someone until they show you they don’t deserve it but you still love and pray for them,’” Richmond III said.
He was a gentle man but a father who had standards and consistently ensured his children met them. It seems to have worked, as Richmond III said neither he nor his siblings “have gotten into any trouble.”
“He was a special man, he really was.”