"I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish. Prior to me and a few other guys, there were not any African Americans owning or running an industrial company. Don’t get me wrong, we have always had business owners in our community but never in some industries."
John A. James was born in the small town of Starkville, Mississippi, and earned a Bachelor of Science in sociology from Mississippi Valley State University. He continued his studies at the University of Toledo, prior to joining the Army Corps of Engineers as a commissioned officer. James received a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal for his service during the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese government also awarded him equivalent recognitions for his service. After leaving the military, he studied Business Administration at Wayne State University from 1969 to 1972.
James worked in management at Chrysler’s headquarters in 1971 when a chance to haul beer for a local distributor sparked his interest. He saw an opportunity in trucking and wanted to break into the business. As a 29-year-old African American man, James soon found out the trucking industry was a closed club. According to James, “Everybody said, ‘Nope, can’t do it. It’s a closed industry. You can’t get in. Don’t even try it.’” He didn’t listen.
James partnered with his uncle, Calvin Outlaw, to form O-J Transport Company based in southwest Detroit. In 1973, he applied to haul beer for Schlitz and Stroh and auto parts for GM, Ford, and American Motors Corp. Nine regional trucking companies opposed James entering the market, and the Interstate Commerce Commission denied his application. The established companies argued there was not enough business to support another trucking company. James asserted that his race should be considered because African Americans had been excluded from the market. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, but the court refused to review it.
James kept fighting until 1978 when the Michigan Public Service Commission finally allowed his company to haul automotive parts and other commodities throughout the State of Michigan. Daniel Demlow, the Commission’s chairman said the former policies encouraged “in effect a pattern of discrimination. There is no question but that the current regulatory formats have in effect precluded minority business persons from getting into the business of transporting goods within the state of Michigan.”
James’ fight shone a light on the systematic discrimination of transportation policies and ultimately brought about change. It was not long before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) granted James’ company the ability to move goods on a national level. It was the first time the ICC awarded such permissions to an African American businessman.
Over time, O-J Transport added supporting companies to its family and eventually its name changed to James Group International. It has grown into a $52 million enterprise including transportation, supply-chain management, and logistics. James runs the company with his two sons and remains active in the industry. In 2021, he advocated for a $650 million, 10-year plan to improve the freight terminal in southwest Detroit which could create an estimated 4,500 local jobs.
Born in Starkville, Mississippi
Graduates from Mississippi Valley State University with a Bachelor of Science in sociology
Studies guidance at University of Toledo
Enlists and serves as a commissioned officer in the Army Corps of Engineers
Starts working for Chrysler Corporation headquarters in personnel and labor relations
Founds O-J Transport with his uncle Calvin Outlaw
Completes studies in Business Administration at Wayne State University
Applies to the Interstate Commerce Commission to haul goods across state lines but was denied
Appeals his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They declined to review the case.
Granted permission to haul within Michigan by the Michigan Public Service Commission
Leaves Chrysler to concentrate on growing his transportation business
O-J Group (formerly O-J transport) earns $40 million in sales
James Group International (formerly O-J Group) is a $52 million international enterprise