Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

Sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter!

Jazz-loving professor and ‘reality check’ dies after 17 years at GW

The sound of smooth jazz emanating from professor James Miller’s office on any particular afternoon acted as just an extension of his friendly, welcoming demeanor.

Miller, 70, died from cancer on June 19, the Washington Post reported. He leaves behind a 17-year-long legacy in the English, American studies and Africana studies departments at GW.

Robert McRuer, the chair of the English department who has been at the University since before Miller was hired, said Miller was the department’s “main reality check.”

“If anything was falling apart, you could always stick your head in Jim’s office, and he’d be the person who would be able to give you a clear answer of everything that was going on and often ideas about how things could go better,” McRuer said.

McRuer said Miller didn’t often talk a lot at department meetings — and sometimes “got sleepy in them” — but when he spoke, his input commanded the room and held significant weight when making decisions.

“He’s been a rock for all of us,” McRuer said. “He was able to talk to everybody and make connections across our differences.”

Miller received a Fulbright Scholarship in 2008 and has studied in Johannesburg, South Africa and London. He studied black musicians and writers who had connections in Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean, McRuer said.

Miller’s music obsession also drew him to local joints like Twins Jazz on U Street, and he frequently played the music in his office, McRuer said. Miller would also often take students on field trips to District landmarks like Ben’s Chili Bowl and taught a class at neighboring high school School Without Walls.

During his time at GW, Miller taught a class about black culture in D.C. and another on one of his favorite authors, Ralph Ellison. He was awarded the D.C. Teacher of the Year Award in 2002 from The Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Before coming to GW in 1998, he taught at the University of South Carolina, Medgar Evers College, Trinity College and the State University of New York in Buffalo. He also held positions at Lafayette College and Wesleyan University.

James Miller had two daughters with Ed Johnetta Miller. The two had been separated for years, but she said remained “absolute best friends.” Since James Miller’s death, Ed Johnetta Miller said she has received phone calls and emails from students as far away as Brazil who took classes with him more than 30 years ago.

“These wonderful phone calls that are coming in from all over the world, and emails that I have been getting, just have been a real comfort to all of us here,” she said in an interview this week.

Throughout the years, James Miller and Ed Johnetta Miller kept a special Christmas tradition that reminded her of the close bond they shared.

“One thing he did for me every Christmas, he’d send me a case of wine because he said I kind of like crappy wine,” she said. “So what he’d do is he’d send me a beautiful bouquet of flowers and he would send me a crate of wine.”

Miller penned a number of historical non-fiction books, including “Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial,” which has received national attention since its publication in 2009.

Jennifer James, the director of the Africana Studies program since 2010, said in an email that Miller’s work laid the foundation for the future of the program, like the addition of a new major in Africana studies.

James said she first met Miller when she interviewed to work at GW 15 years ago. When facing a panel of English professors, Miller stood out because of his ability to put her at ease with a comforting smile.

“They were all very kind, but as soon as Jim flashed me his legendary warm smile, I felt completely at ease,” she said. “That story ends well. Not only because I was hired, obviously, but because I was given the opportunity to work with one of the finest scholarly minds in my field.”

Miller’s leadership and guidance has helped to propel the Africana studies program forward, even past his tenure as director, she said.

“He gave me invaluable advice throughout my directorship,” James said. “You know, universities change leadership, direction and priorities. He always said that I should remember why the program’s existence matters. Studying black life and art is not a ‘fad.’”

More to Discover
Donate to The GW Hatchet