James Bransford got a second chance in life, and he spent it helping other people get one.
A recovered alcoholic, Bransford was a fixture at the Hennepin County Courthouse who worked for decades in the public defender’s office redirecting people from prison to substance abuse treatment.
After retiring from his job in the judicial system, Bransford kept working to help people overcome addiction until the pandemic forced him to stay home.
He died July 31 at the age of 89 from kidney disease. He was the father of Hennepin County Judge Tanya Bransford and entertainment lawyer Traci Bransford.
“The nation lost a hero when John Lewis passed away, and our community lost our own hero when Judge Bransford’s father, Jim Bransford, passed away,” Judge Kevin Burke wrote in an e-mail last week to judges in the 4th Judicial District. “Jim did not give up on people.”
Bransford was born in Havre de Grace, Md., in 1930, the oldest of five children.
He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and earned his bachelor’s degree from Macalester College in biochemistry.
In 1957, he married Jeanne Watson and became a biochemist at the Veterans Hospital. But he lost that job when he helped himself to too many free drug samples and his drinking became a problem. After his second car crash, he stashed a flask of whiskey in his leg cast.
“I decided that was addictive behavior. I only decided that in hindsight. I thought it was pretty cool at the time,” Bransford told the Star Tribune in 2008.
He was a loving and involved father, Tanya Bransford said. He never missed a science fair. He took his daughters to a 1972 caucus for U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s presidential bid. He inspired them to read African American literature even though it wasn’t assigned at North St. Paul High School.
In his early 40s, Bransford got sober. He was a founding member of African American Family Services, earlier called the Institute on Black Chemical Abuse.
Viewing addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing was central to his work, his daughter said, and the legal interventions he and others from the Institute on Black Chemical Abuse championed in the 1970s were decades ahead of their time.
“This became popular in the 2000s,” Tanya Bransford said. “He was a pioneer.”
In his work for the Public Defender’s Office, Bransford for decades steered families toward treatment and away from jail or prison. “All of us are redeemable,” he told the Star Tribune.
He saw chemical dependency as something with specific cultural dynamics. Black chemical abusers needed a different approach than middle-class white men, he said. Burke said Bransford “was a great bridge” to a clientele that was “inherently distrustful of the justice system.”
After he left the job at the Public Defender’s Office in 2010, Bransford worked for five years at the Brian Coyle Community Center helping East Africans with chemical dependency in a program similar to the one at the Institute on Black Chemical Abuse. He then worked at Nurturing House LLC, a drug rehab facility in St. Paul.
He loved seafood and jazz and served on the board of Penumbra Theatre.
Bransford is survived by his second wife, Barbara; daughters Tanya Bransford Lewis and Traci Bransford, stepdaughter Alcenya Ajayi, seven grandchildren, three sisters and a host of great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins. A virtual memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. A private family service will be in Maryland in July 2021.