The artistic gifts of James Hampton were virtually unknown until shortly after his death. Hampton was born in the small rural community of Elloree, South Carolina. His father was an itinerant, self-proclaimed Baptist minister and gospel singer who deserted his wife and four young children to follow his calling.
When Hampton was around nineteen years old he moved to Washington, D.C., to join an older brother. From 1939 to 1942 Hampton worked as a short-order cook in several local cafes, and later joined the federal government labor force. Details concerning Hampton's educational background are sketchy. Presumably he attended the local schools in Elloree, South Carolina. On an application for federal employment in Washington, Hampton claimed to have attended an African-American high school in the District of Columbia through the tenth grade. There are no records, however, of Hampton's attendance at such a school.
In 1943 Hampton was inducted into the United States Army and served with the 385th Aviation Squadron in Texas, Hawaii, and the jungles of Saipan and Guam. His unit was noncombatant, and drew duties that consisted largely of carpentry and maintenance of air strips. Following his honorable discharge from the army in 1945, Hampton returned to Washington. In 1946 he was hired by the General Services Administration as a janitor. He remained in that position until his death.
Additional facts concerning Hampton's life are scarce. He never married, lived alone in a small apartment in a row house in northwest Washington, and was described as a small, bespectacled, soft-spoken recluse with few friends. James Hampton was totally dedicated to his "vision", a "vision" that almost defies artistic classification yet produced an outstanding example of religious sculpture. In November 1964, Hampton died of cancer in Washington at the age of fifty-three.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)