James Edwin Campbell was born September 28th, 1867, in Pomeroy, Ohio. He completed his secondary education at Pomeroy Academy in 1884. He taught in Ohio for two years before relocating to West Virginia, where he served as the editor of The Pioneer and West Virginia Enterprise newspapers.
In 1887 his first collection of poetry, Driftings and Gleanings, was published. Campbell was twenty years old.
A gifted speaker, in May 1889, Campbell delivered a lecture at the Simpson Methodist Episcopal Church in Wheeling entitled “Race Antagonism” that raised enough profits for the church to purchase a new Sunday School Library.
On August 4th, 1891, Campbell married Mary Lewis Champ, also a poet and educator. She later served as an instructor in music, painting, and drawing at the West Virginia Colored Institute.
In 1891 and 1892, he was the principal of Point Pleasant Colored School. Under his leadership, the school expanded and was renamed the Langston Academy. He left Langston to serve as the first President of West Virginia Colored Institute (now West Virginia State University), serving from 1892 – 1894.
In 1893 he was awarded an honorary Bachelor of Philosophy from Shaw University.
In 1895 he moved to Chicago and became a staff writer for the Chicago Times-Herald.
His second and best-known collection, Echoes from the Cabin and Elsewhere, was published in 1895. Campbell is considered one of the first African-American poets to publish in vernacular, prior to Paul Laurence Dunbar.
While visiting his parents over the Christmas holiday in 1895, Campbell became ill. He died on January 26th, 1896, of typhoid pneumonia. He was 28 years old.
Lesson from Campbell.
Looking at Campbell’s biography, it is hard to imagine he was just 28 years old when he died. The world would have held little space for a black poet’s work at the end of the 19th century, yet he etched them into history and left them and his influence for posterity.