2012 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
James A. Garriss ’69
Real Estate Broker, Coldwell Banker Howard Perry and Walston
Sometimes the right person in the right place at the right time makes history.
Jim Garriss’ place and time came in UNC’s admissions offi ce in February 1969. Jim had finished his coursework in January 1969 and had been accepted into a number of law schools for the coming fall term. Throughout his undergraduate years, he had recruited black students to UNC via Carolina Talent Search, visiting predominantly black high schools around the state to talk up the opportunities at the state’s flagship University. He had grown up in Bertie County, in Powellsville, a town with a population of about 250 then and now. Both his parents were teachers with college degrees, and education was valued highly in his family. Through Carolina Talent Search, Jim encouraged top students who did not believe college was an option.
In 1968, upon the death of UNC’s longtime admissions director, Charles Bernard, the University appointed Richard Cashwell ’59, a junior member of the staff with progressive views, as interim director.
When an admissions officer slot opened, Cashwell tapped Jim, who accepted on the condition that he be hired with the same title as the other admissions officers: assistant director. Cashwell agreed, and just like that, a barrier, quietly and inexorably, broke. Jim became UNC’s first black assistant director of undergraduate admissions. When he left for Columbia Law School seven months later, Hayden “Benny” Renwick ’66 (MED) took his place.
Jim’s undergraduate years coincided with a critical transitional juncture in race relations at UNC. The school’s first black scholarship basketball player, Charles Scott ’70, enrolled, as did the first black scholarship football player, Ricky Lanier ’73. The Black Student Movement formed, and the black student population increased from about 60 students to about 100, still a small number but a more than 50 percent increase.
The summer before his final year at Columbia, Jim worked for the Office of General Counsel at the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., and he planned to become a civil rights lawyer. But once again, fate stepped in. He was offered a clerkship with a federal judge in Philadelphia, and he met Karen Robinson, a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. When his two-year clerkship ended, he stayed in Philadelphia, and he and Karen married.
Career-wise, Jim had fewer options in Philadelphia than in New York for civil rights work. He joined a corporate law firm, representing blue-chip clients, “the farthest work you could do from civil rights,” he said. “My paradigm shifted.”
Jim and his wife took turns moving for one another’s careers, which took them to New Jersey, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Texas. Throughout his career, Jim was the first black lawyer in different work settings, “but that was happenstance,” he said. “There just weren’t enough black lawyers to go around.”
Then in 1996, Jim was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He continued working while going through chemo, but the illness prompted some hard questions: Would his wife and son and daughter stay in Texas upon his death? In 1999, the family decided to move to the Triangle to be closer to his family in North Carolina and hers in New York. The following year, Jim’s oncologist gave him six months to live.
Once again, fate stepped in. His only chance — and it was a slim 15 percent one — was to undergo a bone marrow transplant. “I told my doctor, 15 percent is better than zero,” Jim said. Finding a donor match would be difficult, as few minorities sign up as donors. Fortunately, he was able to serve as his own donor, and the surgery at UNC Hospitals was a success.
Jim could have returned to the long hours of a corporate litigator, but he chose instead to apply his strong negotiating skills and analytical ability to the real estate market. He got his broker’s license and has built a business, despite the sudden downslide of the market in 2008.
Both of Jim’s children chose Carolina for college. His daughter, Kirstin ’11, majored in journalism and mass communication and revived the campus magazine Black Ink. His son, Kendall, is now a first-year student.
“From 1952 to 1972, only about 500 black students total attended Carolina,” Jim said. “My son’s freshman class alone has about 400.”
That exponential growth is part of Jim’s legacy.