Long-Time Commissioner Remembered As A ‘Shooting Star’

BERLIN – The community this week is mourning the death of well-known social activist and former politician James Lee Purnell Jr. He was 84.

Purnell, Worcester County’s first African American elected official, passed away Monday. Area residents say he’ll be remembered for his trailblazing efforts in politics as well as for the decades he spent as a school bus driver.

“Hope, support, guidance, advice and tough love when needed is what Cousin Jimmy would provide to many of us, be it from the driver’s seat of his school bus, from the dais in the commissioner chambers, or while leaning across the hood of his red pickup truck,” Berlin Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols said. “He was one of a kind and will be greatly missed.”

Purnell, born in Briddletown in 1937, owned a drapery business before being hired by Worcester County Public Schools as a bus contractor in the 1970s, a role he held for close to four decades. He also became an advocate for the community, eventually becoming president of the Worcester County NAACP. He was heavily involved in the organization’s efforts to challenge the county’s voting practices, which eventually led to the creation of a new minority district. Purnell was elected to serve as the county commissioner for the new district in 1995 and served until 2014.

Purnell, who was known to most to “Jimmy” or “Junior,” was instrumental in bringing a variety of positive changes to the community. His nephew, Gregory Purnell, recalled his efforts to bring county water to the Briddletown area after contaminated well water was linked to the landfill.

“The community was suffering,” Gregory Purnell said. “He stood with the community and we got that water.”

In the wake of that effort, Purnell got involved with the NAACP, according to his nephew, and, once the new voting district was created, became Worcester County’s first African American elected official.

“He was kind of like a shooting star,” Gregory Purnell said. “Once he got going he went to the top.”

He said his uncle remained a humble man despite the various leadership roles he held.

“Everything he touched for the community went for the better,” he said.

Nichols said she remembered Purnell’s guidance from when she was a teenager.

“Back when I was a middle/high school student, he was the president of the Worcester County NAACP and taught us that even as young people we had a voice,” she said. “It was up to us to use that voice and make our concerns heard.”

Commissioner Diana Purnell, who was elected to fill Purnell’s seat once he retired, said he was a strong advocate for the people he represented.

“Jimmy was a very active warrior for people’s rights here in Worcester County,” she said. “He fought very hard for the community.”

Purnell served five terms as a commissioner, serving as both president and vice president before retiring in 2014. He received the Tri-County Council’s annual Citizenship Award in 2015 for his outstanding service to the community.

Diana Purnell praised his devotion to not only his district by the entire community of Worcester County.

“He was a good friend and a great advisor,” she said. “We’re going to miss him dearly. I’m asking the community to keep his wife Clemeth in prayer.”

Berlin Mayor Zack Tyndall, in a statement shared via social media, said he was sad to hear of Purnell’s passing this week.

“Mr. Jimmy, as many knew him, was a beloved member of the Town of Berlin and Briddletown communities,” Tyndall said. “As the first black county commissioner in Worcester County, Mr. Jimmy advocated for our community and the people he represented.”

Gregory Purnell noted that his uncle never stopped advocating for the people even after he retired from political office.

“He was a pillar of this community,” he said. “His name will live on and on for the things he did.”

A service for Purnell is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 1, at First Baptist Church in Salisbury. The viewing will be at 10 a.m. and the service will begin at 11 a.m.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.