In 1984, Usry was elected as the first African American mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, which was his hometown.
Though born in Athens, Georgia, Usry’s family moved to New Jersey when he was young. Usry graduated from Atlantic City High School and attended Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, where he was the captain of the college’s varsity basketball team as a 6′-3″ left-handed power forward.
With an abundance of athleticism and personality that would serve him later in life, Usry had “the poise and brilliance of Adonis on a basketball floor; the noise and laughter of Harlequin when off.” Voted as “Most Witty” for his class, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1943.
Usry was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in North Africa and Italy with the 92nd Infantry Division during World War II. After returning home, he worked as maitre d’hotel at the Club Harlem in the resort town. But he kept his hoop skills sharp. “Big Jim really bossed in basketball,” his senior year yearbook had stated.
So, on November 1, 1946, Usry signed an exclusive professional basketball player contract with the Renaissance Big Five Inc., the corporation owned by Robert “Bob” Douglas that was otherwise known as the New York Rens.
He signed for $500 a month, including disability insurance. The agreement had an option to renew for the following season, which the parties exercised. Usry would play with the Rens in the 1947 and 1948 World Championships of Professional Basketball, as well as with the 1948-49 Dayton Rens of the National Basketball League.
Here is the first page of that contract, which is one of over 200 items from the Black Fives Foundation’s historical archive that will be on display in the New York Historical Society Museum’s upcoming Black Fives Exhibition.
After retiring from basketball, Usry worked in the Atlantic City School District until 1984, when he ran for mayor. In the meantime, he had gone back to school, earning a master’s degree from Glassboro State College (now called Rowan University) in 1971.
Usry was the Mayor of Atlantic City from 1984 to 1990, before being ousted from office in the midst of a corruption scandal. After that he stayed active in education as a substitute teacher. He died in 2002 at a nursing home in Galloway Township, New Jersey after complications suffered from diabetes and cancer.