James Hampton was born in 1909 in Elloree, South Carolina as one of four children to James, Sr. and Sarah (Johnson) Hampton. His father, who had abandoned the family, was a gospel singer and a traveling Baptist preacher but also a known criminal who had worked on chain gangs. In 1928, Hampton moved to Washington, DC and shared an apartment with his older brother Lee. Hampton worked as a short-order cook until 1943 when he was drafted into the United States Army Air Forces. He served with the
385th Aviation Squadron in Texas, Hawaii, and in the jungles of Saipan and Guam. The segregated unit was noncombatant and duties included carpentry and maintenance of air strips. Hampton built a small shrine-like object during his time in Guam which he incorporated into his larger artwork later. He was awarded the Bronze Star, honorably discharged in 1945 and returned to Washington, D.C. In 1946, Hampton was hired by the General Services Administration as a janitor and worked there until his death.