James Hart Willis, Sr.

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James Hart Willis, Sr.

Death: May 31, 1963 (78)
Immediate Family:

Son of James R. Willis and Iris Willis
Husband of Jessie Lee Willis
Father of Anna Rembert Elkins and James Hart Willis, Jr.

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About James Hart Willis, Sr.

James Hart Willis, Sr., professionally known as J. Hart Willis, lawyer, businessman, and Texas state senator, son of James R. Willis and Iris (Hart) Willis, was born in Columbia, Missouri, on March 19, 1885. Willis’s father was a farmer who, by 1900, had moved his family to a farm in Flathead County in northwestern Montana. Willis was the only known child born to James and Iris.

Willis attended the Agricultural College of the State of Montana (later the University of Montana) in Missoula. He continued his education at the University of Washington, where he received a bachelor of laws degree in 1910. At Washington, Willis very much deserved his reputation as “the most versatile person in [his] class”; he was heralded as an excellent cornet soloist in the band and distinguished himself in oratory and track competitions, in addition to being a varsity athlete in football and crew. Willis met his wife, Jessie Lee Rembert, at the University of Washington, where she attended for one year before graduating from the University of Texas at Austin. They married on April 11, 1911, in Jessie’s hometown of Dallas, where they lived for the rest of their lives. In 1912 the couple gave birth to their first child, Anna Rembert Willis. Their second child, James Hart Willis, Jr., was born in 1923.

Willis’s legal career and political involvement began in Montana, where he tried cases as a criminal defense attorney and served as a delegate to the Democratic state convention in 1910. Once in Dallas, he practiced law, most notably as an incorporation lawyer, and was president of the Beta Theta Pi Alumni Club of Dallas. In 1921 Willis ran in a special election to the state Senate to replace the popular James Clayton McNealus, who had died of a heart attack after the regular session of the Thirty-seventh Texas Legislature. A staunchly conservative Democrat, Willis campaigned for the seat representing Dallas and Rockwall counties on the principle of “fewer and better laws” and claimed that he would fight for the elimination of “useless bureaus, commissions and departments.” Due to a lack of consensus, the Sixth District Democratic Executive Committee did not endorse any candidate. At the end of the campaign, Willis was one of five Democratic candidates still in the race, most notable among them Claude M. McCallum. Also on the ballot was former federal district attorney William H. Atwell, who was the Republican nominee. Ultimately, Willis performed strongly in the Dallas city limits and won the election by a large margin.

As a legislator, Willis participated in two called sessions in the summer of 1921. He filled McNealus’s numerous committee seats, which included replacing him as the chair of the Labor and Internal Improvements committees; as vice chair of the Public Health Committee; and as a member on the committees on Constitutional Amendments and State Affairs, among others. Willis was also appointed to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. He vocally argued in opposition to House Bill No. 35, which would have allowed the attorney general to remove certain public officials for failing to enforce state laws and which was strongly favored by Governor Pat Neff. The measure was intended to strengthen prohibition enforcement, but Willis viewed it as “dangerous” for increasing the power of the executive branch. Willis sponsored four bills that became laws. Most notably, he authored Senate Bill 69, which authorized commissioner courts to appoint commissioners to appraise levee improvement districts and to levy relevant taxes in those districts. Additionally, Willis co-authored bills relating to criminal appeals procedures and regulations for the sale of bonds which failed to pass. He supported the unsuccessful effort to call a 1923 Constitutional Convention to pursue educational, judicial, and prison reform.

As his time as a state senator ended, Willis continued to grow his civic and social presence in Dallas. He was a member of the Dallas chapter, or “klavern,” of the Ku Klux Klan, which was an undeniable political, social, and economic force in the early 1920s. In 1924 Willis was labeled as the “strongest” influencer of a faction within the Dallas Klan that took exception to the organization’s minority rule. He was also a Mason, a member of the Phi Delta Phi legal fraternity, the Dallas Petroleum Club, and an honorary member of the Idlewild Club. Additionally, Willis was a member of quite possibly Dallas’s most frivolous social organization, the Bonehead Club of Dallas, the purpose of which was for members to relax and have fun; as stated by its initiators, “our aim [is] nothing.” His wife also had a strong social presence and was active in the Women’s Club and the Shakespeare Club. The couple attended the Highland Park Presbyterian Church, where Willis served as a church elder, and his wife assisted the church with its work in Latin America.

As a lawyer, Willis was associated with Dallas attorneys Thomas D. Gresham and Otis B. Freeman in the 1920s. Willis opened law offices with J. W. “Tobe” Madden, Jr., in 1928. By 1934 he was a junior partner with Thomas, Knight, Baker & Harris. He then partnered with Ted Lewis in 1947. Finally, after his son's graduation from Southern Methodist University and Yale University, Willis opened the law offices of Willis & Willis with his son, Hart Willis, Jr., in 1952. Though principally engaging in private practice, Willis in 1932 worked briefly as a special district attorney to file suits to remove county officials from office on account of an audit of the Dallas County Commissioners Court. He was a committed member of the Dallas Bar Association and served as chairman of its judiciary committee. In 1924 he served as president of the American Savings & Buildings Association. Willis also served as general counsel and board member for the Southern Old Line Life Insurance Company; he eventually took over as president in 1940. In 1952 he was president and organizer of the American Service Mutual Life Insurance Company. Willis’s business pursuits extended outside of Texas, as he served on a board of directors with other Dallas businessmen who sought to develop the El Oro gold mine in New Mexico.

While Willis maintained a career as a successful attorney for almost fifty years, his vocal role in Dallas Democratic politics is equally noteworthy. A longtime member of the Dallas County Democratic Executive Committee, as acting chairman in 1928 Willis urged Dallas Democrats to take a loyalty pledge to avoid the threat of separate conventions and encourage party unity. Moreover, he successfully defended then-county executive committee chairman Murrell L. Buckner in a legal case challenging the right to exact a party loyalty pledge before participating in the party’s conventions. Despite his earlier pleas for party unity, Willis, as a fervently conservative Democrat, grew to be one of the state’s most outspoken leaders of the Democratic faction opposing Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. As chair of the Dallas County Texas Regulars, Willis attacked Roosevelt’s New Deal policies as “Communist” and urged voters not to vote for the Democratic Roosevelt/Truman ticket in the 1944 presidential election. In fact, after failing to gain control at the Dallas County Democratic Convention, Willis led a revolt that saw half of the attendees walk out and form a separate convention of anti-Roosevelt Democrats. Ultimately, the Texas Regulars failed to prevent Roosevelt from winning Texas, but Willis and other Regulars leaders choose not to side with Republican party leaders who eagerly sought to earn the Regulars’ support.

After Roosevelt’s reelection, Willis became chair of the Southern Democratic Club in Dallas, a successor organization to the Texas Regulars which became part of the Dixiecrat movement in 1948. These conservative Democrats ardently opposed Harry Truman for the Democratic nominee for president on account of his proposed civil rights plan. The Dixiecrats supported South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for president, and Willis argued that their loyalty to “true” Democratic principles and opposition to “machine politicians” and “state socialists” would help secure states and individual rights. Despite failing to be elected as a precinct chair that year, Willis still made his presence and the voice of Dixiecrats known at the Democratic state convention when he led the Dallas delegation out in protest and exclaimed that the convention had “buried the Democratic party in Texas.” Willis chaired the Southern Democratic Club’s executive committee during the 1952 presidential election as well. Ultimately, while Willis’s efforts to alter the trajectory of the Democratic party proved futile at the state and national level, his political advocacy in favor of states’ rights, supported by the Southern Democratic Club, had some bearing at the local level regarding Dallas as a focal point of Democratic conservatism and segregationist ideology.

Willis’ political involvement waned with his age. He retired as a lawyer in Dallas four years before his death. On May 31, 1963, less than two months after the death of his wife, the seventy-eight-year-old Willis died of pulmonary emphysema at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. He was interred in the Hillcrest Mausoleum.

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James Hart Willis, Sr.'s Timeline

March 19, 1885
March 28, 1912
December 26, 1923
May 31, 1963
Age 78