Academics: Faculty

James T. Gillam, Ph.D.: Baby of the Bunch

Compared with the previous three faculty members -- Christine King Farris, LaConyea Butler, and Nagambal Shah -- James Gillam’s 29 years of service make him the baby of the bunch. The professor of Chinese history said he has accomplished what he intended to at Spelman, and now it is time to do other things.

“When I came to Spelman, my intention was to bring the study of Asia in general, and China and Japan especially to HBCUs,” said Gillam, a Vietnam War veteran and prisoner of war. “I also wanted to create a cadre of African-American women who had advanced degrees in Asian-related fields. Finally, I wanted to establish a reputation as a published author on Asia. I have done all those things, so I decided that I want to have enough time at this time in my life to make nonacademic things the focus of my life.”

Gillam’s interest in all things Asian evolved over time, beginning when he was a youngster growing up in the projects of Cleveland, Ohio. A Chinese neighbor’s mother introduced him to fried rice.

“My authority on Asian studies came in stages; the first was through Mrs. Chin’s kitchen door when I was exposed to fried rice by her son Jimmy Chin,” said Gillam, author of Memoir: Life and Death in the Central Highlands: An American Sergeant in the Vietnam War 1968-1970. “My next experience was in college when I met an exchange student named Heavenly from Hong Kong.”

Gillam later flunked out of college and went to the Vietnam War where he was brought through the fire of Asian culture as a POW.  While captured, his Chinese interrogator gave him lessons in Mandarin and regional politics. Describing his 10-plus-month Vietnam ordeal as hell, Gillam and a fellow POW were able to escape his captors when they saw a nearby American troop.

Upon returning to the U.S., he enrolled at Ohio University where he took his studies seriously this time, receiving a degree in political science and history, then a master’s in history from Case Western Reserve University, followed by a doctorate in modern Chinese history from Ohio State University.

Once he became an expert on history and all things Asian, his trek to Spelman was serendipitous.

“The year we hired Dr. Gillam, the History Department was searching for an Asian historian and Dr. Martin Yanuck, who was then chair and I had convinced Dr. Donald Stewart, then president, that we probably would not be able to find an African-American to hire because  there were so few in the field at that time,” said Margery Ganz, Ph.D., director of Study Abroad and International Exchange and professor of history. “Therefore, when Dr. Gillam walked into the interview at the American Historical Association Meeting in Chicago, we were thrilled and a bit surprised. He was so good we wanted to hire him on the spot, but we still had to go through all the procedures; but, we knew by the end of the interview that we wanted him to join us in the department.”

Now, the Harley-riding, “true to his blue-collar roots” Gillam will complete the PBS documentary on the impact of the war on soldiers and their families series; reopen his carpentry shop; narrate academic audio books of Japanese and Chinese history; and finally spend time with his grandchildren.

“I can't imagine what it will be like not to be able to walk into his office and sit down and chat over some coffee, Twizzlers, Jelly Beans and Skittles, or see that shiny black Harley with the studded saddle bags, or the cowboy boots, the jeans, chaps, and red bandana pulling up into a parking space in the deck or outside of Cosby,” said friend and colleague Kathleen Phillips-Lewis, Ph.D., associate professor and chair for the Department of History. “I wonder, too, who is going to teach the offspring of the department to drive?  Luckily, Dr. Gil is and always will be family.”

Title: Professor Chinese History, Department of History
Office: 404-270-5506; fax, 404-270-5508
Location: Cosby 410, Box 319

Educational Background:
Ohio State University, Ph.D.
Case Western Reserve, M.A.
Ohio University, B.A.

Recent Awards:
Full Professor, 2010
Presidential Faculty Award, Excellence in Teaching 2000

Research Interests:
  • Modern Chinese Economic and Business History
  • Vietnam War
  • Modern Japanese History

Courses Taught:

  • History 203 Foundations in World History
  • History 241 History of Traditional China
  • History 243 History of Traditional Japan
  • History 242 Survey History of Modern China and Japan
  • History 302 Historical Methods
  • History 343 History of Modern Japan
  • History 346 Seminar: Islam in China
  • History 441 Seminar: Vietnam From Colonial Era to 1990
  • History 442 Seminar: Mao Zedong Thought in Lusophone African Rebellions

Recent Publications:

  • PBS Documentary: The Impact of the War on Soldiers and Their Families (Forthcoming).
  • Memoir: Life and Death in the Central Highlands: An American Sergeant in the Vietnam War 1968-1970. Denton TX. University of North Texas Press. 2010
  • Monograph: War in the Central Highlands of Vietnam 1968-1970; An Historian's Experience. Lewiston, NY. Edwin Mellen Press. 2006.
  • Book Review, Karl Marlantes, What it is Like to go to War, (Publisher’s Group West: New York; 2011), for Vietnam Magazine, February, 2011.
  • “Death Dance in the Dark”, Vietnam Magazine, Vol. 23, No. 5, February 2011.
  • Book Review, Della Adams, and Louis Carlson, editors, An American Dream The Life of an African American Soldier and POW Who Spent Twelve Years in Communist China. (University of Amhurst Press; Amhurst, 2007).