Ambassador James A. Joseph Obituary

James Alfred Joseph

March 12, 1935 - February 17, 2023

It is with great sadness we announce the passing of Ambassador James A. Joseph, beloved husband, father, grandfather, and public servant. Ambassador Joseph left this life on Friday, February 17, 2023, surrounded by loving family.

Ambassador James Joseph lived an inspirational American life dedicated to service, faith and the fight for equality and social justice. He was born on a family farm in Southwest Louisiana, spent his early years in segregated Opelousas, Louisiana - the state headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan – and rose to the heights of achievement and contributions in academia, public service, civil society, and the private sector.

From his humble roots, Joseph served in senior executive or advisory positions for four U.S. Presidents, including appointments by President James Carter as Under Secretary of the Department of the Interior and President William J. Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to South Africa from January 1996 to November 1999. The only U.S. Ambassador to present his credentials to President Nelson Mandela, Joseph was awarded the Order of Good Hope by the Republic of South Africa in 1999, the highest honor bestowed on a citizen of another country.

Under President Clinton, Joseph also served as the founding chair of the Commission on National and Community Service that established AmeriCorps. Joseph served under President Ronald Reagan on the Advisory Committee for the Agency for International Development and on the Board of Advisors for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and as an Incorporating Director of the Points of Lights Foundation under President George H.W. Bush. In 2010, he was honored by the United States Peace Corps for his life-long contributions to voluntarism and civil society.

From 1982-1995, Joseph was President and Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Foundations, an international organization of more than 2,000 foundations and corporate giving programs, which changed communities and lives on five continents. He served as a Vice President of Cummins Engine Company, the world’s largest producer of heavy-duty diesel engines, and President of the Cummins Foundation from 1971-1977, where he was a pioneer in corporate social responsibility and helped fund a broad array of civil rights and civil society organizations.

An ordained minister, Joseph taught at Yale Divinity School and the Claremont Colleges where he also was University Chaplain and led student protests against the war in Vietnam. He was professor emeritus of the practice of public policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, a leader in residence for the Hart Leadership Program, and founder of the United States – Southern Africa Center for Leadership and Public Values at Duke and the University of Cape Town where he served as Honorary Professor and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Graduate School of Business. In 1985, Joseph was a Distinguished Visitor at Nuffield College at Oxford University.

Ambassador Joseph was a leader in the fight for civil rights. After graduating from Southern University in 1956 and obtaining a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School in 1963 - where he later received the prestigious Lux et Veritas award - Joseph taught at Stillman College located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the national headquarters of the KKK. While at Stillman, Joseph co-founded the local civil rights movement, leading marches, sit-ins, and other protests against segregation, garnering death threats from the KKK. He befriended and worked alongside renown civil rights leaders including The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young (D-GA), former Congressmen John Lewis (D-GA) and William Gray (D-PA), former National Urban League President Vernon Jordan, Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Julian Bond, and Vivian Malone, one of the first two black students to enroll at the University of Alabama in 1963, and in 1965 became the university's first black graduate.

Joseph was a proud native of Louisiana. After Hurricanes Rita and Katrina decimated New Orleans and communities across the southern part of the state, Governor Kathleen Blanco named Joseph Chair of the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Louisiana (formerly the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation). In 2006, he was honored by his home state as a Louisiana Legend. He was inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame in 2008 and is a member of the Opelousas Hall of Fame.

A frequent speaker to academic, civic and religious audiences, Joseph authored four books, "The Charitable Impulse," "Remaking America," "Leadership as a Way of Being," and “Saved for a Purpose: A Journey from Private Virtues to Public Values.

He is the recipient of nineteen honorary degrees and his undergraduate alma mater, Southern University, named an endowed chair in his honor. The Board of Directors of the Council on Foundations appointed him President Emeritus and the Association of Black Foundation Executives, of which he was a founding member, established the James A. Joseph Lecture on Philanthropy. He also was chairman emeritus of the NHP Foundation, dedicated to the preservation and creation of value-added affordable housing.

In 1979, Joseph was named by Ebony magazine as “One of the 100 Most Influential Black Americans” and later by Fortune magazine as one of “America’s Best Nonprofit Managers.” He served on the Board of Directors of the Brookings Institution, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Children’s Defense Fund, City Year South Africa, and more recently the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Foundation, Inc. He was a member of the board of directors and chairman emeritus of MDC, the successor to the North Carolina Fund now serving low wealth communities throughout the South, and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and the Andrew Young Policy Center at Morehouse College. He was a director of the Management and Training Corporation and also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Academy for Public Administration.

James Alfred Joseph was born on March 12, 1935, in Plaisance, Louisiana. He attended the segregated St. Landry Parish Training School where he excelled in English and original oratory. He won the state oratory competition and placed second in the national competition to the future Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D-TX), the first Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. Joseph was an avid athlete who achieved success in track and basketball, and during high school, served as student government association president. In 1952, upon graduation from high school, Joseph entered Southern University where he served as class president, president of the Baptist Club and as the debate team champion. He graduated with his B.A. degree in political science and social studies. Joseph received his master’s degree in divinity from Yale University where he was active in civil rights protests. A U.S. Army veteran, Joseph was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in 1956 after completing Reserve Officers' Training in a non-combatant unit at Yale. 

Joseph was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and Sigma Pi Phi, also known as The Boulé, the oldest fraternity for African Americans among those named with Greek letters.

Ambassador Joseph is mourned by his loving wife the former Mary Braxton of Sarasota, Florida - an Emmy Award winning television journalist - his son Jeffrey and daughter-in-law Lisa Merman of Arlington, Virginia, daughter Denise of Alexandria, Virginia, granddaughters Jordan and Julia Joseph, and his beloved nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents Adam and Julia Joseph, as well as Doris Taylor Joseph, his wife of 33 years, and his brother John who was elected as the first Black mayor of Opelousas, Louisiana in 1986.

The family is planning a private burial to be followed by a memorial service in Washington, D.C.

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