Born a slave in New York, Thomas James freed himself by traveling by night to Canada. After a period, he returned to New York. Feeling himself safe, he went on to become an AME Zion minister, abolitionist, administrator, and author.
Rev. James founded an AME Zion church in Lockport, New York, held national offices in the AME Zion organization, assisted parishioners who were part of the Underground Railroad, and was briefly the pastor at the Rossville AME Zion church on Staten Island.
Chroniclers remember Rev. Thomas James as more an antislavery lecturer than preacher, and yet he could preach. Still, he was more ready to fight when he thought of the enormities of slavery. He worked with Lewis Tappan to secure the freedom of the Amistad captives. After the Civil War, he held a position in connection with the Freedmen's Bureau, in which he distinguished himself by his fearlessness in defending the rights of the freedmen.