James Heyward Blackwell was born on February 5, 1864, although the date is uncertain. (Some sources have suggested February 5, 1862, or February 1865.) He was the eldest of two sons and two daughters of James W. (probably William) Blackwell and Charlotte Chatman (or Chatham) Blackwell. He was probably born a slave in Marion. By 1870 the family had moved to Manchester, across the James River from Richmond, where his father was a stonemason. Although Blackwell’s parents could not read or write, they encouraged him to obtain an education. In or after 1872 he came under the tutelage of Anthony Binga, the only African American teacher in Manchester’s public schools and pastor of the First Baptist Church, to which Blackwell belonged. Blackwell went on to graduate in 1880 from the Richmond Theological Institute (later Virginia Union University).
On September 5, 1880, Blackwell began his career as a teacher in New Kent County. After two terms he returned to Manchester, where blacks had successfully lobbied for the employment of African American teachers. The city’s school for blacks opened in 1882 with Binga as principal and Blackwell as one of the three teachers. He succeeded Binga as principal in 1888. On May 29, 1891 the school graduated its first students from a three-year high school curriculum that Blackwell had initiated.
On July 8, 1885, Blackwell married Annie Estelle Jordan, a Petersburg teacher and sister of William H. Jordan, a member of the General Assembly. They had two sons and one daughter. Considered one of the area’s rising young men, Blackwell became a speaker and organizer for the United Order of True Reformers. In 1891 he helped found the Virginia Industrial Mercantile and Building and Loan Association. He served as secretary and general manager of the ambitious enterprise, which according to its state charter proposed to operate general mercantile stores, to hold yearly fairs showing the “industrial and material advancement of our race,” and through loans to enable “persons of limited means to secure comfortable houses for their families.”
The association did not survive the economic depression of the 1890s. As conditions improved, however, Blackwell and eleven others chartered the Benevolent Investment and Relief Association on February 19, 1898. Blackwell again served as secretary and manager. He reported on April 2, 1902, that the company employed eighty-two people and had issued more than 12,000 insurance policies. Despite initial success the company dissolved about 1906. It faced stiff competition from several other Richmond insurance companies operated by African Americans, and the expense of handling numerous small policies made it difficult to build the cash reserves necessary for survival.
In 1910 the cities of Manchester and Richmond consolidated, and Blackwell’s school was named the Maury School. Because Richmond did not permit blacks to serve as principals of public schools, he was demoted to a teacher after twenty-two years in his post. Even more disheartening, the high school students were sent to the larger Armstrong High School. Blackwell remained de facto chief administrator of the Maury School until 1916 when, with completion of a new annex, it was renamed the Dunbar School and a white man became principal.
Blackwell developed still more outlets for his talents. For twenty years he was treasurer of the Virginia Baptist State Sabbath School Convention. He aided in the survival of the Smallwood Institute, located at Claremont in Surry County, after the death in 1912 of its founder, John J. Smallwood. In addition to serving as the school’s secretary, he was its president in 1915 and 1916. In partnership with his elder son, James H. Blackwell Jr., he organized the Southside Realty Company. Blackwell also served as an officer of the Hawkins Company and the World’s Wonder Chemical Company, both manufacturers of beauty products, and for a time he was president of the Loprice Land Corporation. His two sons enjoyed successful professional careers. James H. Blackwell Jr. was a Richmond physician and longtime secretary of the Old Dominion Medical Society, and George W. Blackwell became a lawyer and politician in Chicago.
After more than forty years in public education, Blackwell retired in 1922. During the remainder of his life he managed two employment agencies, the Interstate Colored Teachers Agency and the Better Service Bureau. Blackwell died in Richmond on October 14, 1931, and was buried in the family plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery in that city. In 1951 the Dunbar School became a combined elementary and junior high school, and the following year the Richmond School Board renamed it the James H. Blackwell School. An elementary school alone since 1970, it has given its name to the surrounding neighborhood.