The news was revealed Friday morning, and makes James the franchise's very first black Bachelor in its 18-year history. James' season will also be a milestone as the show's landmark 25th.
The announcement, made on Good Morning America, comes amid worldwide headlines about the Black Lives Matter movement.
"We know we have a responsibility to make sure the love stories we’re seeing onscreen are representative of the world we live in, and we are proudly in service to our audience," ABC said in a statement. "This is just the beginning, and we will continue to take action with regard to diversity issues on this franchise. We feel so privileged to have Matt as our first Black Bachelor and we cannot wait to embark on this journey with him.”
James, a 28-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, was originally set to be a contestant on Clare Crawley's upcoming season of The Bachelorette. But, filming of Crawley's season was put on hold in March for coronavirus precautions, just ahead of the night she was supposed to meet her group of men.
On GMA, James said he was disappointed he wouldn't get to meet Crawley, but said he's excited to take on the Bachelor role.
"It’s an honor," he said. "I’m going to lean into myself and how my mom raised me, and hopefully when people invite me into their homes Monday night they see that I’m not different from them and that diverse love stories are beautiful."
He was also asked if he felt the franchise had done "too little too late" when it came to casting him.
“In my opinion, I don’t think it’s ever the wrong time to do the right thing," he said. "We can’t have change until you put that first foot forward.”
The ABC Food Tours co-founder is familiar to many fans in Bachelor Nation, though; he's best friends with former Bachelorette fan favorite Tyler Cameron, who was runner-up on Hannah Brown's season in 2019. James, Cameron and Brown all spent significant time quarantining together early on in in the pandemic.
The casting is a huge milestone for the Bachelor franchise, which has been criticized for its historic lack of diversity. Of The Bachelor's 24 seasons, just two have featured non-white men in the lead role. Season 18, which aired in 2014, starred Juan Pablo Galavis, who is Venezuelan. Season 24, which aired earlier this year, starred Peter Weber, who is half-Cuban.
Over the past five years, executives at the show's network, ABC, have promised that the franchise is working on making its cast more diverse when asked about the issue. Notably, Weber's season had the most diverse cast of women yet; about a third of contestants were women of color.
The franchise has yet to announce when they'll resume filming The Bachelorette, but has started recasting some of the men due to scheduling. James, of course, will no longer appear as a Bachelorette contestant.
James shared what he's looking for in a woman: "I'm looking for qualities that my mom embodies, and that’s selfless, honest, caring, compassionate; those are qualities found in women of all shapes, sizes and races," he said. "It’s not a black or white thing. So I'm hoping that when that limo pulls up there’s a lot of diversity, and I see every type of woman coming out of that limo."
Many fans were hopeful they would see the first black Bachelor on season 24 because Mike Johnson, who appeared with Weber on Brown's Bachelorette season, was a fan favorite. At the time, ABC told ET that he was in the running for the gig.
The Bachelorette, meanwhile, cast its first black lead, Rachel Lindsay, for season 13 in 2017. Her historic season saw both a rise in diverse contestants as well as producers behind the scenes on the series. However, she told ET this week that those changes did not stick after her season.
Earlier this week, Lindsay made headlines as she threatened to cut ties with the Bachelor franchise unless strides were made towards inclusion and released a statement acknowledging "systemic racism." She currently co-hosts the franchise's official podcast: The Bachelor Happy Hour.
Longtime franchise host Chris Harrison previously told ET that while coronavirus had put Crawley's season of The Bachelorette on hold, the plan was to still film that season, and The Bachelor after that.