James M. Townsend was born August 18, 1841 in Gallipolis, Ohio, the son of William and Mary Ann Townsend. He attended the public schools in Oxford, Ohio, and at an early age began preaching in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1863, anxious to help emancipate his race, he enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers — the first black regiment to enter military service. Townsend remained on active duty until the end of the Civil War.
Upon returning home he attended Oberlin Academy, a preparatory high school operated by Oberlin College, for two years. Then he moved to Evansville, Indiana, where he was a school principal and continued his religious studies. In 1871 he was ordained a deacon. During the next fifteen years he held pastorates in several Indiana cities, among them Terre Haute, Indianapolis, and Richmond. In 1876 Townsend was elected assistant secretary of the A.M.E. Church’s national conference; two years later he was named missionary secretary of the church. In that capacity he traveled abroad several times. He was chosen in 1881 as a delegate to an ecumenical conference in London, England.
He moved to Richmond, and in 1885 was elected a state legislator on the Republican ticket, only the second African-American to be elected. Townsend was a vigorous advocate of civil rights for blacks while in the General Assembly. He introduced a bill to abolish all distinctions of race in state laws — including marriage and the militia. It failed, but Townsend’s pleas for equal justice did produce a bill banning descrimination in public places.
In 1889 President Benjamin Harrison, recognizing Townsend’s efforts for the Republican party, named him recorder of the General Land Office in Washington, D.C. Townsend resigned the office in 1891 and returned to Richmond, where he served as pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church for two years. He died in Richmond on June 17, 1913.