Keith James was in third grade back in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, when his teacher called his mom in for a conference. The teacher wanted James to go into an accelerated learning program at a school across town. But there was a catch. He would be the first African American student to attend.
His mom, Patricia James, had grown up in small-town Oklahoma and went to college at Wichita State. Her first year there she fell in love.
“He was a James Dean wannabe, a high-school dropout with a cigarette pack in his shirt sleeve and a pool hustler,” James says of his father.
When Patricia James became pregnant, she dropped out of college and took a job as a maid. So when her son had the chance to get into a program for smart kids, she had a quick answer.
“She didn’t bat an eye. She said, ‘I guess we’re going to bus him across town,’” James says. It would be another two years before Wichita began integrating its schools, and those two years of being the only African American student meant constant verbal abuse, James recalls.
But it’s also what helped prepare him for his current role as mayor of West Palm Beach. He’s the first African American mayor since the city rewrote its charter in 1991 to give mayors the power to oversee the government, a so-called strong mayor system. Those years as the only African American kid meant he had a trial-by-fire understanding of politics, of the need to befriend enemies and talk his way out of problems.
In high school, James had a counselor ask him his plans for college. When James said his only goal was to get out of Kansas, the counselor asked if he’d considered the Ivy League. “I turned to him and said, ‘the Ivy what?’” James remembers.
Throughout school, James had maintained a nearly perfect A average, mostly because his greatest fear was disappointing mom. “If I brought home a B, there had to be a pretty good explanation,” James says, “and there was never a good enough explanation.”
James sat down with the counselor and wrote letters to every Ivy League school asking for applications. When he enrolled at Harvard, the change in culture was “a significant adjustment.” It wasn’t just about the different types of people, but it was also that James had never been east of Kansas City.
While he had many successes, James says his biggest failure came in 2005. His kids were teenagers when James says it was his own arrogance that caused his divorce. “I had to look at myself in the mirror and take full responsibility for my failure of marriage.”
Five years passed before then-mayor Lois Frankel approached him about running for the city council. By then, James says he had faced the self-pity that followed hitting rock bottom.
In this year’s election, James beat out two seasoned politicians in the first round of voting, capturing half of the votes and avoiding a runoff. He says he has an underlying mission with everything he does now to give everyone the opportunity to succeed in West Palm.
“I want to build the ability for opportunity for all,” he says. That means more employment opportunities and affordable housing most of all, along with making the city more attractive to companies.”
Being African American and leading the city carries a weight. “It does come with the responsibility that there is no room for error,” James says. “My mother taught me you must be twice as good.”
He says he also knows he has a responsibility to succeed because of the sacrifice his mom made cleaning toilets for so many years. Patricia James, now 80, recently went to the graduation of James’ daughter, who also earned a law degree from Harvard.
“I watched a tear go down my mother’s cheek,” James says. “That’s two generations now given an opportunity because of her sacrifice.”