Half a century after graduating from UNLV, 105-year-old Audrey James was back on campus last week as honorary homecoming queen.
James — a retired teacher who lives in North Las Vegas — is believed to be UNLV’s oldest living alumna. She may also be the university’s first African American graduate.
The centenarian served as grand marshal Nov. 15 for the homecoming parade, riding in a convertible along UNLV’s Academic Mall and wearing a crown, cape and sash.
James, who was born in 1914, was a nontraditional student at UNLV. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1965 and master’s degree in education in 1971.
A few years ago, UNLV stopped crowning a traditional homecoming king and queen to be respectful of its diverse student population, said Chad Warren, senior associate vice president and executive director of the UNLV Alumni Association. Three months ago, he asked university administrators if they’d allow for James to be an honorary homecoming queen.
Before the homecoming parade, James told reporters about her time at UNLV, “Well, there were times when it was very pleasant and there were times when it was not so pleasant.”
“I had an incident in this one class where this young man — I was the only black in the class — and so I guess he just thought I shouldn’t be there and he made the remark about ‘let’s see what osmosis is going to do,’” she said.
When the class was over, James saw the man at a grocery store one day and he commented, “You made a ‘B’ and I got a ‘C,’” James recalled Nov. 15 and laughed.
James worked as a teacher while pursuing a college education. When she earned her degree, “I was very proud,” James said told the Review-Journal.
During her days at UNLV, “very few students were here,” she said. “The whole campus was desert at that time.” Now, when she’s on campus, “I get lost when I come over here.”
James moved to Las Vegas from her native Mississippi. She and her husband, Isaiah James — who died in 1984 — bought a house on Revere Street in North Las Vegas in 1963 with a $950 down payment, according to a 2014 story about James in UNLV Magazine. They moved in the day of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral.
James still lives in that house, along with a relative who takes care of her.
James didn’t start teaching until her 30s, since career options were limited in Mississippi — a result of Jim Crow laws, according to the UNLV story.
While teaching at majority-African-American schools in west Las Vegas, James took evening college classes at what would become the Southern Regional Division of the University of Nevada — often called Nevada Southern. And later, the school became UNLV.
James says she was the first African American graduate of UNLV. Due to a lack of comprehensive records from that period, the university can’t confirm that, Warren said, but he noted yearbook photos indicate it’s true.
James worked at west Las Vegas elementary schools for 22 years and wrapped up her career in 1978 at Dearing Elementary School.
James passed her passion for education down to her family. Two of her nieces — who were with her the night of the homecoming parade — also hold degrees from UNLV: Judye Conner and Lamona Jones.
“It’s a blessing to have such a trailblazer to model yourself after,” Jones told the Review-Journal.
How UNLV met the centenarian
UNLV found out about James in 2014, when she made a gift to the university after a student worker called her.
“We don’t get a lot of new donors through the phone center,” Warren said. “When someone makes a gift out of the blue, we try to follow up with them.”
A UNLV staff member reached out to James and when they were putting her information into a computer system, they realized she was about to turn 100.
Ever since the university wrote a story about James, Warren and others from UNLV have visited her home a couple of times a year. James asks them to bring her favorite foods — such as fried crawfish and collared greens — from a Southern restaurant near her home.
“She’s a remarkable woman and sharp as a tack,” Warren said.
James’ advice to today’s students: “Take Jesus with them wherever they go and whatever they do, and to stick with it,” she said. “It’s difficult at times, but stick with it.”