James Lee Sellers
Connor Mullin, Archives & Special Collections Spring 2019 Internship
James Lee Sellers was born on June 18, 1891, in the not-coincidentally-named Sellers Precinct (so-called because of his father, Enock) near North Platte, Nebraska. However, though he would eventually return to Nebraska, he spent much of his early life out of the state, as his family moved to Indiana and later Kansas. There Sellers graduated high school before completing a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas in 1916.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, Sellers went to Wisconsin, receiving both a Masters’ and Doctorate in History from the University of Wisconsin. For eight years, from 1922 to 1930, Sellers taught at the University of Wisconsin as an Instructor and then an Associate Professor. At the end of that period, he left to become an Associate Professor of History at the University of Nebraska, and in 1932 Sellers became a full Professor at UNL, a position he retained until his retirement in 1959.
Sellers played a substantial role in the governance of UNL, serving as the Chairman of the Department of History briefly between 1947 and 1948 and again between 1951 and 1956. His contributions to the Department are recognized today with the James L. Sellers professorship, but in his time he helped handle issues ranging from loss of staff due to the Second World and budget cuts to negotiating for higher salaries for those in the Department. Sellers also took part in the governance of the College of Arts and Sciences and UNL as a whole, serving on the Faculty Senate and acting as president of the Nebraska branch of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in the late 1950s. He supplemented such activities with involvement in many historical associations, most notably the Mississippi Valley Historical Association and the Nebraska State Historical Society.
However, Sellers also took a great interest in politics. Although later a solid Democrat, Sellers appears to have been a Republican earlier in his career. During his time in Wisconsin, for instance, he supported the pro-business Walter Kohler for governor, and in the mid-1920s wrote a positive biographical note of then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover for which Hoover sent him a personal letter of thanks. By the time he returned to Nebraska, however, Sellers seems to have moved more towards a progressive (in the early 20th-century sense of the term) political stance. He exchanged letters with individuals including Republican Senator George Norris of Nebraska, arguing in favor of joining the World Court in the 1930s, and backed Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 Presidential Election.
By the mid-1950s, Sellers had become a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party. Concerned about the impact of poor education and the threat it posed to American democracy, Sellers took a leading role in agitating to remedy the situation, writing editorials, letters to the editor, and speeches supporting increased education budgets. He also strongly opposed McCarthyism, a stance that resulted in him receiving an anonymous threatening letter from a resident of Omaha. Sellers’s support for Adlai Stevenson in both the 1952 and 1956 elections did not go unnoticed by Stevenson himself, who took the time to write personal notes to Sellers thanking him. By the late 1950s, Sellers had become well-known enough in both the political and historical fields to be asked by then-Senator John F. Kennedy to help nominate noteworthy former Senators for the Senate Reception Room.
Sellers’s other main involvement in the late 1950s and early 1960s was serving on the Board of Directors for the Truman Presidential Library, although he also took part in numerous efforts to preserve and restore Nebraskan historical landmarks, such as William Jennings Bryan’s Fairview House. Sellers also helped plan Nebraska’s portion of the Civil War Centennial memorials. He maintained such activities until his death on February 16, 1966.