James Little, a Freed Slave

The Story of a Lansing Man Whose Character Moved all Who Knew Him

James Little was a freed slave from New York who was born in about 1792 and died March 10, 1884. This story is copied from a tattered newspaper article that was found in a Turner family album. Almost all of the articles were about members of the Turner family and their relatives. This story, however, is about an African American settler who moved to the area in 1847 at the same time Marion and James settled in what would become Lansing. A short news article from 1961 that fills in some additional information follows.

[...James Little] said he was not a colored man but a black man. He was rather undersized, nearly bald, with a homely face, a slight stoop in his shoulders, and hands so thin and unshapely that they resembled birds claws. His step was brisk and his whole physique betokened alertness, energy and native intelligence, but at first sight not a specially attractive figure.
No one who knew Father Little will fail to bestow upon his memory a loving, reverent thought, for no man ever walked the streets of Lansing who enjoyed the love and confidence of all classes more than he. He was a welcome guest in the homes of many of the wealthiest, most cultured people. He was greeted lovingly in the humble homes of poverty, and no one, no matter how low or godless or profane, ever gave him taunt or insult or ill-treatment.
(Part of this newspaper article was lost, so only the bottom of this drawing of Father Little was saved.)

He was born a slave in eastern New York, but was freed under the administration of DeWitt Clinton. As a slave he several times changed hands, at one time being sold for $65. But his whole life long he did what so few, even with ample opportunities try to do, he constantly strove to make the most of himself. His greatest personal attraction was a piercing or rather a searching eye, and while, as a black man he always seemed to feel a shrinking from making himself just equal to white people (it was a habit of mind he could not overcome), yet in conversation he would look steadily at the speaker and literally drink in every word spoken.
Drawing of Father Little
He was a student. I remember that in one of the many calls he made at our home he told me he was studying geography, and how intensely interesting he found it. He read history and biography, and was intelligent beyond many of those with whom he came in contact. But it was as a Christian that he excelled. Surely no one that ever heard him pray can forget it. He was not a fluent talker, sometimes finding it difficult to get words such as he wanted to use; but when he went on his knees in prayer, he seemed to forget every earthly presence and then his words would flow forth, until not infrequently he became oratorical, sublime even in his utterances.

The soul of Father Little was especially burdened for young men, and he was possessed of the spirit led him to feel Save the young men or I die. I remember him well coming into my home and as he came up the steps he threw himself down upon them as he burst into a paroxysm of uncontrollable weeping as he talked about the young people of his race, and he said The 6th verse of VI Psalm exactly expresses my feelings when I think of them. I found the verse and found it to read: I am weary with my groaning, all the night make I bed to swim, I water my couch with my tears. His most familiar words of address to the Deity were: Blessed Father, or God of Israel, and may times as he uttered them it seemed as if he had direct audience with heaven.

Mr. Little did not know his exact age, but was probably about 81 years old at the time of his death. He came to Michigan when a young man about 1847, secured a small farm in Eaton County. About the same time he was married, by dint of thrift, industry and economy the couple accumulated some means.

Rev. W H. Thompson, who preached his funeral sermon, used these words, For twenty tears he tilled the soil on his farm. They were years during the whole of which the colored man was under the social ban, as were any disposed to befriend him. They were years during the whole of which the sum of all villainies struggled to capture the[...] (Part of the page is missing.)

[...] sion of one of our wealthy citizens, under the agreement that they should be provided for while they lived as consideration. But after a very few years they were informed that they had lived out its value and that he could no longer care for them. So, homeless, in their old age they were sent adrift. Homeless, but not friendless. The whole city full of people were their friends. A purse sufficient was soon raised and a little house and lot in the western suburbs of the city was bought for them and here again they settled. It was not long before the little, new, uncultivated lot showed signs of improvement. Trees and shrubs planted, and growing flower and vegetable garden, showed the taste and public spirit of the new owner. His wife was a retiring, diffident woman, never in very good health, and she was seldom away from home. But she was an excellent housekeeper, and made a neat, pleasant home for them both. In this new home she died in April, 1881. They had no children.

As might have been expected Mr. Little was in full sympathy with every good work, and so when the Women's Christian Temperance Union was organized he entered heart and soul into the spirit of the work, and for years was tract and literature distributor, having regular routes for such work. He could go into any vile place of any sort, and leave tracts or notices for meetings, always receiving kindly treatment, where almost anyone else would have been hooted. It was a tribute to his sterling integrity and manly Christian character.

When the Industrial Aid Society came into being, he recognized its worth, and after the death of his wife, he wished the little home to pass into possession of that excellent organization. And so, one lovely Sabbath afternoon, in presence of a large number of people, and with appropriate religious service, he dedicated it to the use of the Lords poor, by formally presenting it to the society. This time his confidence was not misplaced. The ladies of the society appointed one of their number to have especial charge of him, and until the day of his death, he was kindly and carefully looked after each week. Owing to the remoteness of this place from the central part of the city, it could not be utilized as an industrial home, but it was sold, and the proceeds made a payment on the comfortable home which the society now occupies.

One other marked characteristic will be noted, his great love for children. For many months he gathered numbers of them at his home, to teach them any lessons which he thought would be helpful to them, and this work gave him intense enjoyment.

He died March 10, 1884. His funeral was held in the A. M. E church, and perhaps no funeral in the city was attended by a larger number of representative people. The sermon was preached by Rev. W H. Thompson, of the Central M. E church, of which he was a member.

"Mark the perfect man, and the upright, for the end of that peace."
Mrs. Gilbert H.


See also, the information about the connection of the Dodge family to the anti-slavery movement.

The State Journal - Sunday, January 8, 1961

Lansing, Michigan
from Lansing's Past...a Profile of James Little

He Rose From Slavery

By Birt Darling
(State Journal Historian)

"We bury a prophet, an Elijah. The chariot and the horse of flame have borne him away, but he has left to us his mantle."

With these grandiose words of another century, Lansing paid a last tribute on March 12, 1884, to "Father Little."

"Father Little," who had died two days earlier, was James Little, one-time Negro slave. Apparently he was never actually ordained, but his ministrations extend beyond his own Pine Street M. E church in the 1870s and 1880s.

And when they buried him on the slopes of Mt. Hope cemetery that chill March day, there were six pallbearers-three white and three colored.

For this was a man who, having known slavery, was concerned with his own people. But, beyond and above that, he was concerned with the human race as children of God.

"Father Little," or "Uncle Jimmy," as he was sometimes known, was born a slave in Eastern New York about 1803. He was manumitted (freed) by a Mr. Hart sometime after 1821, attended common school and later an "academy", which would correspond with our present day high school.

Leaving school as a freedman he worked at many tasks, saved his money, came west to Oneida township in Eaton county in 1847, and earned the respect of his white neighboring pioneers as he worked with them to clear the forests.

One day he disappeared quietly. He returned just as quietly a few weeks later-with a wife.

There were adversities, and in 1867 "Uncle Jimmy" and his wife moved to Lansing where he became active, in both Central M.E. and Pine Street M.E. churches, preaching at many a service when called upon. In his declining years Lansing's citizens of all races and creeds bought a cottage for the Littles.

When his wife died in 1881, "Father Little" for a time increased his neighborly calls and intensified his interest in others. Then, his strength ebbing, the old pioneer retired to his cottage and awaited the call of which he was unafraid.