James Samuel Christian was born on October 26, 1918, in Richmond and was the son of Estelle Jasey Christian and James Samuel Christian, a postal worker and a founder of the National Baptist Deacon’s Convention of America. Christian graduated from Armstrong High School in Richmond. While attending Virginia Union University, he supported himself with a series of jobs, including highway maintenance work and as doorman and assistant manager at a movie theater. Soon after the United States entered World War II, Christian suspended his studies and volunteered for the Army Air Corps. He was the first African American from Richmond to report for flight training at the Tuskegee Army Air Base in Alabama. On July 11, 1943, in Jamaica, New York, he married a Richmond teacher, Margaret Constance Olphin. They had no children.
A few weeks after his wedding, Christian and his aviation unit were sent to Livorno, Italy. He was promoted from sergeant to first lieutenant in January 1944. For his service during World War II as pilot of an observation plane and for part of the time as personal pilot for General Mark W. Clark, Christian received the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters and was recommended for the Silver Star for gallantry. He remained in the reserves after the war and became a postal worker in Richmond. Recalled to active duty during the Korean War, he commanded an anti-aircraft battery of the New York National Guard.
By 1954, James S. Christian Jr., as he was known throughout his life, had returned to Richmond and resumed his job with the post office. Resuming his education as well, he took accounting courses at Virginia Union University and government courses at the Richmond Professional Institute (later Virginia Commonwealth University). In 1963 he opened an accounting and bookkeeping business in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. Christian began a four-year term on the city planning commission in 1972 and became vice chair in 1975. When in September 1976 he was named chair of the commission, his stated agenda called for revitalizing the city’s downtown, encouraging development along the James River, increasing employment, and reforming land-use policies to solve some of the city’s housing problems. He was also a member of the Capital Region Area Airport Commission and of the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission.
In March 1975 Christian campaigned for thenomination for one of five seats representing Richmond in the House of Delegates. He received endorsements from two influential African American political organizations, the Richmond Crusade for Voters and the Peoples Political and Civic League, and also from the Virginia State AFL-CIO. Christian finished seventh in a field of eight candidates in the June primary. Two years later he again sought and this time won the party nomination. Spending only $5,000 on his campaign and relying heavily on support from the black community, he was one of two African American men elected in November 1977 to represent Richmond in the House of Delegates for a two-year term. He served on the Committees on General Laws and on Nominations and Confirmations. A quiet man, Christian did not sponsor any bills during his first term in the General Assembly but instead preferred to sign on as co-patron of bills other members introduced. He supported ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and also a measure to ensure that women could receive Medicaid payments for an abortion if the pregnancy jeopardized her life. He backed pari-mutuel betting on horse races and voted for a bill to provide financial aid for cities that could not legally annex land in adjacent counties.
Christian won reelection in 1979. He sat on the Committees on Corporations, Insurance, and Banking, on General Laws, and on Nominations and Confirmations. He opposed the state sales tax on food because he believed that it imposed undue financial hardships on the state’s poor. His bill that would have allowed local governments to give real estate tax breaks to the elderly and disabled was defeated. Christian received credit for helping to enact a law that permitted voter registrars to go into the residences of elderly and handicapped people in order to register them. Winning election to a third term in 1981, Christian’s primary objective continued to be the repeal of the state sales tax on food. He served on the Committee on General Laws during the 1981 session and on Committees on Conservation and Natural Resources, on Corporations, Insurance, and Banking, on Finance, and on Nominations and Confirmations.
Back spasms that resulted from a collapsed vertebra in his lower back forced Christian to miss part of the 1982 legislative session. As a result of legal challenges to the required redistricting plan of the House of Delegates after the 1980 census, a special election was held in November 1982. Christian was elected to his new single-member seat with no opposition. It was widely expected that at the next session he would become chair of the House Committee on Nominations and Confirmations, which would have made him only the second African American to preside over a House of Delegates committee in the twentieth century. Diagnosed with advanced bone cancer, Christian died at the Medical College of Virginia Hospital on December 29, 1982, a few weeks before the start of the 1983 legislative session. Following a funeral service at Fourth Baptist Church in Richmond, he was buried in the city’s Oakwood Cemetery. In 1996 a monument to honor Christian, featuring a portrait and a figure of a boy playing with a toy airplane, was erected at the intersection of P Street, Oakwood Avenue, and Chimborazo Boulevard in Richmond.