Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 17th 2019


“Thou Shalt Not Quit”

Honoring the Legacy of General  Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr.
By C. Scott Satterwhite

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan dedicated The General Daniel “Chappie” James Center for Aerospace Science and Health Education on the grounds of James’ alma mater, Tuskegee University.

“He had four stars on his shoulder and 50 stars on his heart,” said President Reagan.

Reagan, who once narrated a 1944 film about the Tuskegee Airmen, described General James as “one of America’s best.”

“All America depended on his judgement and his courage for our defense and survival,” said Reagan shortly before he unveiled one of many posthumous honors on the first African American four-star general in U.S. history.

“He loved America and America loved Chappie James.”

The same could be said of Pensacola. Chappie James loved Pensacola, and Pensacola loves Chappie James.

Currently, there is a museum, flight academy, park, state office building and numerous smaller markers and monuments throughout various places in the area.

By far, General Chappie James is Pensacola’s most prominent veteran and arguably the most historic figure born and raised in Pensacola.  For a man who only lived 58 years, his legacy is long.

Recently, a grassroots campaign seized the opportunity to rename the Senator Philip D. Beall Bridge, commonly known as the Three-Mile Bridge, after James.

Where one county commissioner sees renaming the bridge that’s currently named for a supporter of segregationist policies after the most famous African American in Pensacola history as “re-writing our history,” others see this an opportunity for a new generation to shape the city’s narrative.

To help everyone better understand the renaming debate, we decided to take a deep dive into James’ life and legacy. The story of this local legend started in a small house on a street then called Alcaniz. His rise to fame was not predicted but, understanding his upbringing, is not surprising.

“Separate but Equal” Pensacola
Born in Pensacola, Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. was the child of Daniel and Lillie Anna James. Chappie’s father was a hardworking migrant from Alabama who met his future wife when he moved to Pensacola. He found work as a lamplighter in the days prior to electric streetlights and by all accounts was a dedicated family man.

Unlike Dan Sr., Lillie Anna was a city girl, born in 1876 and raised in Pensacola. The city in which Lillie grew up was under rapid change. Like much of the South in the years following the Civil War, the direction would go briefly towards more rights and great possibilities, only to take a sharp turn in the opposite direction in later years.

In the 1870s and early 1880s, Pensacola claimed an impressive black middle and upper class, with several prominent African Americans holding political office, including John Sunday and Salvador Pons. The collective wealth of the black community in the Reconstruction Era was growing, setting a standard for African American achievement—a feat difficult to imagine during Lillie Anna and Daniel James’s parents’ generation.

With the end of chattel slavery, newly-won civil rights legislation and black representation, many African Americans likely saw the new post-Civil War years as a golden era. Lillie Anna was born into this Pensacola.

Sadly, for those seeking change, the backlash known as white Redemption was about to eclipse the racial gains made under Reconstruction, nationally first and then locally. As federal Reconstruction ended with the political compromise of 1877, Pensacola’s black community continued to thrive for years after until Governor Edward Perry assumed office and ended what he saw as the “carpetbag government” of Pensacola following his 1884 election.

Soon after Perry’s administration rolled back many gains of Florida’s African American population, won by political action and military might in the Civil War, Jim Crow segregation laws gradually took effect throughout Florida.

Despite hardships, a growing sense of self-determination throughout black Pensacola led Booker T. Washington, among many other prominent African American voices, to heap praise upon Pensacola’s strong black community. When Lillie Anna and Daniel James married in 1893, they started a family within the political confines and paradoxes of Pensacola’s “Separate but Equal” policies.

Daniel and Lillie Anna James had a total of 17 children, with only seven surviving into adulthood. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. is the youngest.

A tragic story is told of two of Lillie Anna’s children, twins who contracted pneumonia. When Lillie Anna took them to a physician’s office, they were not seen until very late, as it was this doctor’s practice to see Caucasian patients first. The twins died of their illness.

This is one example of the many indignities faced by African Americans throughout the South, including Pensacola. The price of racism and white supremacist customs was not only relegated to insults but sometimes resulted in death. Lessons like this one shape a community and affect interactions for generations.

By the time the James family’s youngest son was born in 1920, they suffered unimaginable personal tragedies. The city was also far different than when Lillie was born. There were no more African American public officials. The black business community was strong, but segregation hurt and forced many black citizens into underfunded areas, such as East Pensacola.

However, a counter narrative’s often forgotten over discussions about segregation. Though the north section of Alcaniz where the future four-star general grew up was not paved, as opposed to the south section where future Governor Ruben Askew lived, this disparity did not equate to a weak black community. Quite the opposite is true, which is where the Lillie James Private School for Colored Children enters the story.

“A model teacher”
Partially as a means to educate her own children but also as a means to build the community, Chappie’s mother opened the Lillie James Private School for Colored Children not long after her 1893 marriage to Daniel. Often referred to simply as “Miss Lillie’s School,” her school taught all of her own children but also welcomed her community. Hundreds of children in East Pensacola learned mathematics, spelling, reading, civics and other subjects in a firm but nurturing environment that she created.

Mamie Hixon, a professor of English and Linguistics at UWF, lived blocks away and attended Miss Lillie’s School during the early 1950s. Despite living under Jim Crow in segregated Pensacola, Hixon said her community offered a protection from the prejudice of the local white community.

“Who knows about racism? We’re all in the colored school together,” said Hixon. Reflecting on the larger events taking place in the 1950s Deep South, Hixon asked “Who thinks about the peripheral situation of racism on the outside? We’re in a comfortable place. We’re not picketing. There are no white police officers around to arrest us. We’re in an insulated school setting.”

Aware of outside racism, Hixon said her community and Miss Lillie’s School made sure the hostility on the outside didn’t take away from her experiences as a child in school.

“We were insulated from all these things that were happening on the outside. It was a protective, protected environment,” said Hixon. “There were no white people around to impose those restrictions on us, even though we knew of the restrictions … the restrictions of segregation never affected us.”

Hixon described Miss Lillie as a “model teacher” and credited her for much of who she is today.

While her pedagogy was from a different era, Miss Lillie’s School produced doctors, lawyers and professionals from many occupations—including one four-star general.

Miss Lillie taught by “rigid, step-by-step sequences” and demanded discipline. She was quick to punish those who misbehaved but gave love to all who met her expectations. When Hixon attended Miss Lillie’s School, the educator was in her last days and had difficulty walking. Whether or not she could move quickly was of little consequence, as she commanded respect from all the children under her tutelage.

According to Hixon, James sat behind her desk with dozens of children in neat rows, all waiting for her instruction.

“I could call that desk a fortress,” Hixon said laughing. “She choreographed everything from that desk … She handled everything.”

When Hixon was a student, the cost for her classes was 50 cents a day. Reflecting on her time at Miss Lillie’s School, she was still amazed that these “little colored kids [were] going to a private school” in segregated Pensacola.

“When you think of a private school having all the accoutrements of a boarding school, it might not have been a boarding school, but it was a private school,” said Hixon. “A lot of parents in that neighborhood sent their kids to that school.”

Surprisingly, Hixon said Lillie James didn’t speak much about her son except to say that he was a fighter pilot. To Hixon, the James family’s example was a living demonstration that African Americans could do anything.

Miss Lillie’s famous 11th Commandment was one her students, from young Chappie to Hixon, carried with them—“Thou Shalt Not Quit.” This demonstration of achievement was on full display in the skies over her school, even during playtime.

“We didn’t have nap time, but we had recess,” said Hixon.

She described how Miss Lillie planned and coordinated “recess with Chappie’s flyovers. He’d do the flyovers, and we’d stand outside and wave. That’s what I remember a lot …  and that was something, to know that your teacher had a son who was a pilot.”

The shotgun shack schoolhouse—built by Dan Sr. at 1606 N. Alcaniz Street—no longer stands, but the original steps from the home with the words “Chappie’s First Steps 1920” painted on the front remain. They sit next to the Chappie James Museum in the Memorial Plaza.

The museum, located at 1608 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (Alcaniz Street north of Cervantes was renamed in 2000), was Chappie’s birthplace. He lived in this house until he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and left for the famous Tuskegee Institute, one of the most prominent Historically Black Colleges in the South.

“Victory in the fight for democracy”
Although Chappie was not the first sibling to attend college, he was of the first generation. Located in Macon County in Alabama’s “Black Belt,” Tuskegee was founded on July 4, 1882, by Booker T. Washington and was a popular school for Pensacola’s college-bound African American population. When James arrived at Tuskegee in 1937, Washington’s presence still hovered above. Washington’s well-known philosophy of self-reliance and self-determination aligned with what young Chappie learned from his mother.

Though clearly gifted, James’ college career was far from stellar. Outside of sports, he largely lacked direction. He met his future wife, Dorothy, here at Tuskegee, but little else kept his attention.

During James’ Tuskegee years, the U.S. government was actively preparing to enter the World War. Japan invaded Asia while Germany plowed through Europe. President Roosevelt would not declare war until after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, but the government ramped up military production and training knowing war was coming.

At the urging of President Roosevelt, and, in particular, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, flight cadet training soon began at the Tuskegee Institute. This gave James the purpose he needed. As a young man, James saw pilots fly the skies over Pensacola and knew he wanted to do what they were doing. The reality of his time was that there were few opportunities for African American pilots and certainly not in the U.S. military.

But the war changed everything. James quickly applied for admission into Tuskegee’s new flight program for African American pilots. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943, James became part of one of the most famous fighter groups in American military history—the Tuskegee Airmen.

After mastering flying techniques, the Army assigned James to instruct new fighter pilots in the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron, the Red Tails. From Tuskegee, the Army transferred James to Selfridge Field, Michigan, to become a bomber pilot.

Far from Jim Crow Alabama, the treatment of black servicemen was not much better in the North. The U.S. military was a segregated institution. Many African Americans wearing the uniform of the United States, fighting against fascism in Europe and Asia, strongly objected to second-class citizenship back home. Many African Americans called for a “Double V Campaign”—victory in the fight for democracy overseas as well as in the United States.

Racial tensions rose on many U.S. installations, including Selfridge Field. In James McGovern’s biography of Chappie James, he recounted an incident.

“In 1943 a drunken white commander shot and wounded a black soldier without reasonable provocation. He later was court-martialed and retired from the service, but the incident must have stirred bitter feelings.”

The black officers felt particularly angered by the numerous daily slights. In an interview for an Air Force oral history project, James described a squadron commander as having a deep mistrust of African Americans. This general ordered a line painted on the floor of the base movie theater to prevent black soldiers from sitting with white soldiers.

To combat this racist move, “we, with the full cooperation of most of the whites (who were not in authority and did not agree with this sort of enforced segregation), decided to go on what we called ‘Operation Checkerboard’ after the lights went out in the movie.” James said the projectionist would stop the movie, “and made us go back to our segregated seats.” This would happen “two or three times a night.”

A more serious incident occurred when his unit left for Freeman Field, Indiana. A group of black officers attempted to integrate the base officer’s club. Once again, neither their location outside of the segregated South, nor their officer ranks, changed their second-class status in the military. The base commanders had the men arrested and charged with mutiny.

The arrested officers needed support, and they needed it quickly. To curb further racial situations, base commanders ordered black officers to sign a document stating they understood the base’s Jim Crow-type rules and would oblige. Those arrested knew if the black officers refused to sign, they too would likely be charged with mutiny, but hoped they could fill the jails and force a positive outcome.

Their hope was that if enough officers refused to sign the discriminatory order, word of their plight would reach a sympathetic black press and they could beat the charges and possibly end segregation at the officer’s club. Receiving legal assistance from Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, the men found reason for hope, despite the uncertainty of their situation, especially after the recent death of President Roosevelt.

With James’ help, the imprisoned officers were able to relay their dire situation to the black press. The gamble paid off. The War Department, possibly at the behest of Eleanor Roosevelt, stepped in and freed the 101 African American officers. The charges of mutiny were dropped.

Shortly after, the Secretary of War reviewed the case and issued an order effectively ending segregation in military facilities, including officers’ clubs. This action, and others like it, paved the way for President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ending racial segregation in the Armed Forces.

James, along with other brave Tuskegee Airmen and African American officers, could take credit for this momentous event in American history as well as their role in the larger struggle for equality. Through the actions of black service personnel, both on and off the battlefield, the environment ripened for direct action, which led to the modern Civil Rights Movement.

James’ determination echoes his mother’s 11th Commandment—“Thou Shalt Not Quit.”

“I am not a second-class citizen”
After the war ended, James was lucky enough to have his wishes granted and remain in the Army Air Corps as it transitioned into the U.S. Air Force. In 1949, the Air Force stationed James in Manila where the pilot joined his first integrated squadron, the 18th Fighter Group.

Ellis Jones, the president of the Chappie James Museum board of directors, spoke of another important moment in James’ life that happened an officers’ club.

“He walked into a nightclub in Manila, and he was maybe the first black officer to walk into this club. All the music stopped. All the chatter stopped. He said to himself, ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner.’”

Jones said that the uncomfortable situation “didn’t deter him. He still walked in and sat down and said he wasn’t going to be dissuaded by people’s attitude. He was just going to keep pushing forward.” Later, the band started playing again, and all went back to normal.

After the band finished their set, the leader of the band, First Lieutenant Claude “Spud” Taylor, stepped down from the stage and introduced himself to James. The two officers, one African American and one Caucasian, instantly became close friends.

Once the Korean War began, James’ squadron was positioned to move quickly into action. Though he didn’t see combat in World War II, he made up for this in Korea with over 100 combat missions during the short but costly war.

In one combat mission over Korea, James and Taylor flew together, but Taylor was shot down. He survived the crash by parachuting to the ground, where after, he crawled into a ditch and hid while James and his fellow pilots circled above to provide cover. James tried to get helicopters into the area to extricate his friend, but all helicopters were assigned to protect General Douglas MacArthur as he flew over the battlefield.

The following day, U.S. soldiers occupying the area found Taylor lying in a ditch, his body riddled with bullets. Chappie and Dorothy James named their third child Claude as a tribute.

After Korea, James served all over the world, and like many service members of his era, the Vietnam War became the one that defined him. Militarily, James served with distinction, flying over 70 combat missions, including one in which seven MIG fighter jets were shot down.

During this tumultuous time in history, James’ star began to rise, in particular for his response to unrest at home and overseas. Sensing a political shift in the younger troops, James wrote an essay entitled “Freedom—My Heritage, My Responsibility.” Republished in a 1967 edition of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, James’ essay reads, “I am a citizen of the United States of America. I am not a second-class citizen, and no man here is unless he thinks like one.”

According to a 1967 edition of Jet Magazine, this essay caught the eye of Congress, which urged the Pentagon to send James on a “barnstorming tour throughout the country.” The purpose was to debate Stokely Carmichael and other African American radicals publicly about the merits of black service in the Vietnam War.

According to the article, James “had no desire to get involved in political controversy” so the idea of a tour was nixed.

James earned his first general star not long after returning from the war. Earning each star in quick succession, by 1975, the Air Force gave him his fourth star, and with it, James was now the highest ranking African American officer in U.S. history.

One of his final posts was commanding the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

“He became the commander of NORAD. Back in the day, that was a really big deal,” said Cris Dosev, a vocal champion of protecting James’ legacy.

“He was literally in charge of the nuclear defense, and offense, of our nation, no small deal at the height of the Cold War. That’s what his last duty was. To think that this man, who came from the time of segregation, was now defending the whole nation’s mode of living, our whole system, that one man was in charge,” Dosev said.

General Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. retired on January 31, 1978. He died three weeks later of a heart attack on February 25, 1978. He was 58 years old.

“If Chappie James isn’t good enough, none of us are”
In June of 2018 the Chappie James Museum opened, its located in the house where he was born and lived until he left for Tuskegee.

Walking in the front room, one sees giant portraits of the general with artifacts from his military career. In the back of the house is a makeshift classroom, made to resemble Miss Lillie’s School.

Ellis Jones is one of the founders of the museum and the board president. Like James, Jones is a graduate of Tuskegee and heard James speak while a cadet in the college’s ROTC program.

“I really feel special that I’m able to participate in this project,” said Jones. “I’m really impressed by the fact that [James] demonstrated, throughout his life, that he had a strong belief system that his parents inculcated in his being.”

“When you think of a person’s success, you think about their perseverance and their confidence and their courage,” said Jones. “But he had this inner belief system that was expressed by his vision. He used his intuition, his attitude.”

“We think that he epitomized the values that everyone should be thinking about,” said Jones.

Dosev, a former Marine Corps pilot, agrees. He, as well as a number of local veterans, were instrumental in bringing about the proposal to rename what’s commonly known as the Three-Mile Bridge after James.

“He not only served in three wars but World War II. He was part of the Greatest Generation,” said the former Marine. “He spent the next 35 years in the uniform of our country and passed away within days of serving. I don’t know what more a man could do.”

Jones and Dosev are far from the only supporters of the renaming project. In a poll conducted by a joint naming committee between Escambia County and the City of Gulf Breeze, James was the overwhelming winner, beating the bridge’s current namesake, Senator Phillip D. Beale, Sr.

The margin was roughly 7 to 1 in James’ favor. Dosev and Jones were happy about the poll and hope the renaming committee will act in their favor, if for no other reason than to inspire local youth.

“We want to elevate [and] remind the community who this man was,” said Dosev.

Giving credit for James achievements where so many do, with his parents, Dosev said, “His mother and father persevered during a very significant time of struggle. They imbued upon him …what it meant to be an American. In spite of color or race, he understood that fundamentally. That’s the most important lesson. That’s what we’re trying to convey to this generation of children.”

“Our concern right now is that we do not want to forget the name of General Daniel ‘Chappie’ James,” he added, “I think this would do a lot to bring this community together.”

Teniade Broughton, organizer of the Black Pensacola Oral History Project, works with the Chappie James Museum. Like many Pensacolians, Broughton counts many veterans in her family and has long admired James. Broughton led an effort to try to save a house once owned by prominent African American veteran John Sunday in 2016. Although the house was ultimately demolished, she still focuses her energy towards preservation of historic homes and Pensacola’s African American history in general.

She shared a sentiment that she said many hold within Pensacola’s black community—“If Chappie James isn’t good enough, none of us are.”

Quincy Hull lives one block away from the Chappie James Museum. A popular Pensacola poet, Hull said he feels these discussions around James right now are important for the city.

“I feel the energy, the ancestral energy,” said Hull, pointing out the home’s location behind the Leroy Boyd Center for Social Justice and its location on Martin Luther King Jr Drive.

Harkening back to Miss Lillie’s example, Hull teaches classes on black history and youth empowerment out of his home. He said naming the bridge after James would be a major achievement that people in the Pensacola community could hold as a source of pride.

Reminiscing about General Chappie James’ accomplishments, Hull said, “It makes me want to always remember where we come from, so we can continue to teach the little ones where we can go.”