|James “Jim” P. Aiken (1862-1909), a prominent
James P. Aiken (March 1, 1862 – August
25, 1909) was born into slavery in the midst of the Civil War. His enslaved mother
Jane Aiken didn’t publicly reveal the identity of Jim’s father, but it was
believed to be Jane’s enslaver, B.F. Akin of Dunn’s Rock. After Jane, Jim, and
others were emancipated at the end of the Civil War, Jane married Ben Hall in
1876. This was the man that acted as a father to Jim throughout the remainder
of his childhood.
Jim married Dafna Bailey Keyth in
May 1884. There is little documenting their union, though it might be assumed
that they had children based on 1900 Census records listing Ida and Jennie as
children with birthdates after 1884 and before his second marriage. Jim married
his second wife Mary Magdalene Smith in 1891. Mary was a biracial descendent of
the Allison family of Transylvania County.
Depending on the source, Jim is
credited with having 14-16 children. Not all names appear in records, but those
that are known to have come from his marriage to Mary include William, Jesse,
George, Betty, Loretta Mary, Frank, Mary, and Melvin. Loretta Mary Aiken went
on to become a comedic star under the stage name “Moms Mabley.” Loretta’s story
has been covered in previous articles.
His enterprising nature led Jim to
sell apple cider and homemade gingerbread at the start of his retail career. He
became so successful that after five years, he built a store on Main Street (located
at what is approximately 15 West Main Street today) which was a combination mercantile
store, café, and barber shop. It was especially popular on court days when he
would assist lawyers, judges, and other court officials with lunch and a shave.
He later expanded to include a dray service, using a horse and wagon for
transportation of luggage and mail to and from the railway station. A familiar
and well-liked businessman who served all, Jim was known for always being
immaculately dressed and for his sense of humor and fun.
Jim was the member of several civic
groups, the most prominent being the Masons. His grave marker, which can still
be found in the New French Broad Baptist Church Cemetery, includes an emblem
for the honorable order. He was the only black member of the volunteer fire
department, and it was in service to his community that he perished. On August
26, 1909, a fire broke out at Jim’s cousin’s house. The fire department brought
their two-wheeled chemical engine down what is now known as Jailhouse Hill in
order to fight the blaze. The steep incline was unbalancing to the chemical
process used inside the tank, and when it arrived at the scene, too much
pressure had built inside. When Jim went to attach a hose to the tank, it
exploded, killing him and injuring several other firefighters. Just as with
exact biographical details for Jim, there are varying accounts of exactly how
and why the accident occurred, but this is the most accurate version that could
be surmised from a close reading of many historical records, with preference
given to local and timely resources.
The funeral for James P. Aiken was held at the
white First Baptist Church and was well-attended by a variety of people of all
backgrounds. In his will, he left his six houses and business to his widow
Mary, who continued to operate the business after his death. She eventually remarried
and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Jim Aiken was a pioneer, achieving great success
and having a lasting impact in Transylvania County, despite his humble origins
and life obstacles.