James Mumford

Even in retirement, Dr. James Mumford’s legacy looms large at IU

mumfordMore than a decade after retiring from teaching at Indiana University, it’s evident that Dr. James Mumford dearly misses his time directing the African American Choral Ensemble.

How could he not? During his more than 20 years at the helm of the ensemble, part of IU’s Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (OVPDEI), Mumford became an icon on campus, bringing prominence to the university through the performances of his students and more importantly, serving as a mentor.

“It’s been a good ride, but I haven’t been happy in retirement. I’m a teacher. I miss it so much. I just feel like a duck out of water,” said Mumford, who still resides in Bloomington. “When I walk on campus, it’s funny—I don’t know how they remember me.”

Of course “they”—from his colleagues on IU’s faculty and staff to his pupils and other students who were influenced by him—still remember Mumford, an IU professor emeritus. If you spend one minute around the charismatic North Carolina native, it’s hard not to.

In commemoration of IU’s 2017 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, OVPDEI is honoring a select group of individuals who have impacted the IU community through Dr. King’s values of courage and compassion. Mumford’s unique brand of leadership makes him an easy choice.

“I’ve always been very Black-oriented, so for me, the [Neal-Marshall Black] Culture Center, the [African American] Arts Institute, my choir, the [IU] Soul Revue, and the [African American] Dance Company, it was like a Black college here,” he said. “I had many job offers, but I was committed to my students. I’ve always consulted the Lord on what to do. When I was offered jobs, I would ask God, ‘Should I go or should I stay here?’ He would tell me to stay.

“There were students who would say they would have dropped out of school if it wasn’t for the Choral Ensemble, because they felt it was a family. That’s what Black students need here. We traveled to Canada, New York, all over the place, to rave reviews. All I wanted was to teach my kids and see them be excellent.”

As much as he made a difference on the university and surrounding community through his work, Mumford’s backstory is perhaps equally amazing. Born in Kinston, N.C., he was an academic prodigy—along with his twin brother, Mumford was babysat by his aunt as a toddler, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse outside of town, where he absorbed the lessons. By the time he was ready to start going to school back in Kinston, he was so far ahead of his peers that he was skipped several grades, eventually going to college at Virginia State University at 15 years old.

“When I was 6 years old, I was reading on about a seventh- or eighth-grade level. It became a social problem for me, because I was always so many years behind all my classmates,” he recalled with a gleam in his eyes. “When everybody else was staying out until 10 or 11 at night, I had to be in by 7. So, there was always a conflict, especially dealing with girls as I got older.”

But life wasn’t all peaches and cream for Mumford, who grew up in poverty living with his mother, a domestic worker, while his father, one of the wealthiest Black men in town, seemingly lived a world apart.

“I had a kind of strange upbringing because my father was wealthy and my mother was dirt-poor. Trying to walk both lanes was challenging for me,” Mumford remembered, telling a story about how his father would take him and his brother every year to buy expensive clothing at a segregated retailer in Kinston—at night with the shades down, and only when coming through the back entrance of the store. “Here I was going to school in English plaids and broadcloths, leather shoes. I used to get teased: ‘Poor little rich boy.’”

While Mumford’s father was a musician on the side, singing and playing the violin, he was a businessman by trade (he ran the Dunn Hotel, North Carolina’s first hotel for African Americans, established by Mumford’s grandfather), and encouraged his son to choose a different path.

“My father was totally against me going into music. He wanted what every Black daddy wants—a doctor, a lawyer,” he explained. “When I went to college, my father said, ‘If you want to be a pre-med or pre-law major, I’ll send you anywhere you want to go. If you major in music, I won’t give you a damn dime,’ and he didn’t.”

“I didn’t know I was going to go into music until maybe the 11th grade, and it was Miss Harris, my music teacher, who found out I could sing really well and just influenced me so heavily,” Mumford went on to say. “I sung in church a little bit, but she discovered that I had an operatic voice. They didn’t teach music theory in my high school, so she had a few of us give up our lunch to teach us, because she said we’d need to have it for college. She gave me voice lessons and had taught me how to write, analyze, and compose music, which gave me a background like people who really studied it in classes. She taught us well and gave me a real foundation, so when I went to Virginia State, I passed the entrance exam for music.”

After graduating from college at age 19 (where he proudly mentions that he was the youngest-ever member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity), Mumford was set on being a performer. But because of the social climate at the time, that wasn’t in the cards.

“I thought I was going to be the world’s next great opera singer, but in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they were not going to have a Black man on stage, because all my leading ladies would be white. The impresarios and maestros were not willing to try that. I’d go to audition after audition and they’d ask me to sing seven or eight different songs, and nobody else would have to do that. Everybody else auditioning with me would assume, ‘Oh, you’ve got it today,’ and then they’d be just as shocked as I would be [after the audition ended],” he recounted. “It was racism, and it was very devastating to me because I had put in a lot of work and time. But that’s not what God wanted. He wanted me to teach instead and now, I’m glad because I would have never made the impact on individual lives as I’ve been able to make as a teacher here. The devil meant it for bad, but God meant it for good.”

When I arrived, it was like a movie. I walked in and the students started crying. I told them, ‘Look, I’m here. We’ve got a job to do, so let’s get busy.'