ALTON — James M. Bailey Sr. called Salu Street home for some 70 years, and now part of the street will be known as the James M. Bailey Sr. Memorial Way. Salu from Washington to Humbert Road now bears the name of a man known for standing strong for education.
“My father was a man that came from an ordinary background and was able to achieve great things,” said Bailey’s son, Judge Duane L. Bailey. “He would tell you to make the best of the situation that you’re in — no matter what. I’m hoping the kids today can learn that change starts with education. Where my father was born, there wasn’t even a high school; he came to St. Louis to get his high school education. With less than $20 in his pocket, he went to Lincoln University. Nothing was paid for dad; he had to work to get through it. An education is such a great blessing.”
Alton Mayor Brant Walker read the James M. Bailey Memorial Way proclamation.
“What an extension of Mr. Bailey’s life to see the success of his children,” Walker said. “Can you imagine, a judge and a dentist — he must have been a proud man. It is truly an honor to be a mayor of a city that recognizes the great people we have within this city. It’s a small thing that we can do to name a street after Mr. Bailey, given what he had done for us. Given the time and climate he grew up in, he was an extraordinary man to accomplish what he did with all the constraints he faced. He was the example of never quitting, the example of never giving up and the example of picking yourself up to keep going. He proved with his life how important education is.”
Born May 5, 1915, in Trenton, Tenn., Bailey came to the St. Louis area and attended Vashon High School. He received his bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., in 1939. He excelled further in his education by receiving a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1948.
Making education the forefront of his public service, Bailey became a teacher and basketball coach in the Alton School District and remained for 38 years. After nearly four decades in the classroom, Bailey became the junior high assistant principal before taking the role as the junior high principal. Advancing further, Bailey became the first African-American assistant superintendent of schools and ultimately attained the position as assistant principal of Alton High School.
In addition to his work in education, Bailey chaired the steering committee that founded Lewis and Clark Community College, along with forming the steering committee that founded SIUE. Bailey assisted in planning and implementing a school desegregation program and served as a community volunteer registering Alton voters. Bailey was the co-founder of the Elijah P. Lovejoy Memorial scholarship. He was the first African-American elected to the Alton City Council, serving for 10 years, and the first African-American city comptroller.
“My father is one of the reasons I’m a judge today,” Duane Bailey said. “My father being active in the community, dad ran for those positions. For him, it wasn’t about the money; it was about doing something positive. That’s why he got involved the way he did. All the years he was alderman, he always answered the phone or returned a call.”
For his many years of dedicated service to Alton, Bailey was honored in November 2006 with a building bearing his name — James M. Bailey Library at Alton High School.
“You have to remember that Mr. Bailey came here to teach in 1942,” Alton School Board President Ed Gray said. “I was told when my career began that if I wanted to be successful, I should emulate Mr. Bailey. I had always considered Mr. Bailey and Mr. Richard Johnson to be the two gentlemen who broke the color barrier in the Alton School District.”
Holding his students, his colleagues and himself to higher expectations and standards, Bailey was a man of character and respect.
“He (Bailey) told me it was important that you do well and you work hard,” Gray said. “I remember one day he said, ‘Some will say the only reason you got the job was because they needed a black, but you should remember that there were many blacks who came before you who didn’t get the job because they didn’t want a black — so it has now gone both ways.’ He told me not to worry when people make those kind of statements. He said to take time to consider your decisions and if you do, you will gain a great deal of respect.”