On December 22, 1905, in Baltimore, Maryland, James Amos Porter was born to John and Lydia Porter. His parents were professionals who held significant status in their community. His father, a minister, was prominent in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and his mother, an educator, worked within the segregated public-school system.
The youngest of eight children, he matriculated schools in Washington D.C., graduating at the top of his class from Armstrong Manual Training School in 1923. James also had excelled in academics. During that time, he had become interested in art, significantly painting, which was introduced to him by his older brother, John. His efforts in education and art were admired by James Herring, who headed the art department at Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C.
Underneath the tutelage and mentoring of Herring, Porter entered Howard University in 1923 to study art history, drawing and painting. In 1927, James A. Porter earned his Bachelor of Science degree, graduating with honors from Howard. He was immediately hired to join its faculty to teach drawing and painting.
In 1928, James A. Porter submitted a painting of his to be shown; it was the first time his work was featured in a major exhibition. Afterward, his art would be shown in solo and group exhibitions, domestically and internationally.