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Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James

Updated: May 29, 2020

by Natalie Franklin

Colonel (Retired) Roosevelt Lewis, USAF and Joseph Denmon, President and Board Member, Chappie James Foundation

What is a hero? Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “hero” as “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities.” Now the question arises, what constitutes an achievement or noble quality? In order to achieve something, one must show effort, courage or skill. Heroes are typically a rarity and hard to come by. Fortunately for the Pensacola community, there is a homegrown, magnificent hero who is just now getting the recognition he deserves.

Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. was born on February 11, 1920, in Pensacola, Fla. James was the first African American to become a four-star general in the U.S. Air Force. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1937 and went on to college at the Tuskegee Institute. It’s said that James always wanted to fly planes. There were some people who doubted James, saying that a black man couldn’t fly a plane, but James never let anything stop him from achieving his dreams.

In James’ family, the matriarch, Lillie Anna, had a special saying. She believed in an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not quit.” James took her words to heart, and in 1943, after years of hard work and training, he became a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.

His career as a pilot was slow to start. During World War II, he instructed African Americans in the 99th Pursuit Squadron. However, during the Korean War, James began flying combat missions. He received the Distinguished Service Medal, and in 1970, he became the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Area of Public Affairs.

James finally became a four-star general in 1975 and was the first African American to achieve this high honor. His hard work had paid off. James’ accomplishments were inspiring to men, women and children nationwide, especially in his hometown of Pensacola.

Ellis Jones was a child when he first learned about James. “I recall vividly that one day for recess, our teachers told us that there was going to be a treat during recess,” Jones said. The teachers told the children to “keep your eyes peeled to the sky.” Jones describes seeing an airplane in the sky doing dives and climbs. “He treated us to something totally different,” Jones said. “You could see that he was deliberately making roundabouts so that we could see the airplane.” 

Colonel (Retired) Roosevelt Lewis, USAF pictured with Montoria Hubbard, Chapter President, Tuskegee Air, Inc. Orlando, FL, Claude James and Family

David Alexander and Colonel (Retired) Roosevelt Lewis, USAF

Booker T. Washington High School Vocal Harmony

(Mr. Micah J.M. Roland, Director)

That introduction made a lasting impression on Jones, who is now chairman of the Chappie James Museum. The Chappie James Museum opened about two years ago in James’ childhood home at 1608 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The home, built in 1909 housed two local heroes: James and his mother, Lille Anna.

The entire property was added to the United States Registry of Historic Places on Dec. 13, 2000. “They did it basically to recognize the accomplishments of Gen. James and his mother, Ms. Lillie Anna James,” said Jones.

Lillie Anna James was an educator and an innovator in her own right. She established a school for African American children in Pensacola, Fla.

“She decided to tutor neighborhood kids, and word got around about how great she was doing, so that tutoring effort expanded to where they had to move from the house to a small building in the backyard,” Jones explained. The little school expanded yet again, and the house next door was purchased to teach children.

“For 58 years, she taught and administered Ms. Lillie James School.” In fact, James himself was a student at his mother’s school, before attending high school at Booker T. Washington and eventually getting his bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee Institute.

The museum showcases the life of James, highlighting his life and formative years, his education and his achievements.

“The house is divided into three major phases of Gen. James’ career. Since his mother and father played such a big role in his accomplishments, one of the rooms is dedicated to his mother,” Jones explained.

Joseph Denmon, board member of the Chappie James Foundation and longtime family friend of Gen. James, has first-hand knowledge of the excellence of the Lilile Anna James School.

Denmon’s mother attended the Lillie Anna James School, and his father, a master chief in the Navy, was good friends with James.

“Whenever the general would come home, they’d go on an outing... they’d fly fish and talk and enjoy and laugh,” Denmon recalls.

James was an inspirational figure in Denmon’s life. James’ values, integrity and strong work ethic influenced Denmon in a way that ultimately led to his life’s purpose.

Four-Star General, Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr

Pictured (l-r): Clifton Curtis, Jr., President, Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Flight Academy; Colonel (Retired) Roosevelt Lewis; Cris Dosev, Chairman, Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Memorial Bridge Foundation and Ellis Jones, Board President, Chappie James Museum of Pensacola.

Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Flight Academy

Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Bridge Committee, Pensacola, FL

“General James is my sole purpose for going into the military,” Denmon said.

Denmon served in the Air Force for decades as a combat engineer, and he always thought of James as a role model.

One phase is dedicated to James’ education at Tuskegee Institute, and the other phase is dedicated to his military career.

The Chappie James Flight Academy, which is on the same site as the Chappie James Museum, opened in 1996. According to its website, the Chappie James Flight Academy “aims to provide a future workforce for the aerospace industry and to inspire good citizenship using the legacy of General Daniel ‘Chappie’ James Jr.”

The flight academy services teens from low to medium income families and focuses on aviation basics and aerodynamics, academic excellence, independent thinking and decision making, presentation and public speaking skills and financial life skills.

“These are a group of black pilots who’ve been coming back to Pensacola for the last 20 to 25 years,” Jones explained. “They provide an effort to stimulate/motivate kids to think about STEM. They use their flight experience as a way of motivating kids.”

The flight academy does a beautiful job of combining both James and Lillie Anna’s legacy. The young minds that are serviced at the flight academy are educated, motivated and inspired to do great things.

“On the last day of the class, they take the kids to a local airfield, and the kids get a chance to actually get into a two seat small airplane,” said Jones. “The thrilling part about this is that the kids will get into the air and then they’ll get a chance to control the airplane for a few minutes. It’s quite a confidence builder for kids.”

It’s easy to see why Jones and other like-minded individuals have dedicated their careers to highlighting the accomplishments and success of Gen. “Chappie” James. James is both a natural hero and a community hero.

In 1966, James was named vice commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand. As commander of an Air Force base in Libya, James faced down a threatening Libyan Colonel named Muammar Gaddafi over his attempted entry into the general’s base. Denmon can recount details from this heroic tale. As Gaddafi attempted to storm the base, James met him at the front gates.

“He noticed Muammar had a pearl-handed, fancy pistol on his side, and Muammar put his hand on that pistol,” Denmon recounted. “Of course Chappie said, ‘If you pull that, you will never clear your holster.”

James’ strength and skill were evidently threatening to Gaddafi, who quickly retreated and left the base.

“That’s pretty much cowboy stuff to me,” Denmon chuckled.

James showed real courage and patriotism during this standoff. He was later promoted to a four-star general in 1975, making him the first African American with this honor in the history of the U.S. Air Force.

James flew about 180 missions before he was made the commander of NORAD/ADCOM at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. In this position, he oversaw air defense forces for the United States and Canada. In his last post, he served as a special assistant to the chief of staff.

Despite the progress that we’ve made as a country regarding tolerance and equity, there is still a lack of celebrating African American historical figures.

“Those figures who should have received recognition have often not been in our history books,” Jones said. “We have to do what we can to put forth a favorable image of these people.”

That’s why Jones is passionate about the Chappie James Museum and the flight academy. James’ accomplishments and his core values are something to be celebrated.

“It’s kind of a shame that people who grew up and were raised in Pensacola don’t know about Gen. James because he is not only a national hero, but he is a community hero,” Jones said. “Our goal is to publicize his accomplishments and to utilize his value system. When people come in [to the museum] we want them to know that it wasn’t just by luck that he obtained the four stars. It was through hard work and the values he learned at an early age.”

This year, on what would have been James’ 100th birthday, several organizations planned events in his honor. The Air Force and the American Legion hosted events to honor James’ life and legacy. Also, the Pensacola City Council president read a proclamation marking Feb. 11 as Gen. “Chappie” James Day in the city.

The Chappie James Museum hosted a gala to celebrate James. There were about 340 attendees according to Jones. Col. Roosevelt Lewis gave the keynote speech, delivering an intriguing history lesson on James and his time as a Tuskegee Airman. James’ remaining son, Claude James, who lives in New Mexico, attended the Gala. In fact, Claude James and other members of Gen. James’ family have visited Pensacola for the past several years.

“They are deeply in favor of everything we do,” Jones said. “We are greatly encouraged by their participation in our efforts.”

General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. retired from the Air Force in 1978. He died on February 25, 1978, two weeks after his 58th birthday and three weeks following his retirement. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Memorial Bridge Foundation and various community partners are now working to rename the Pensacola Bay Bridge after Gen. James. The entire process has taken about eight or nine months, but there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel.

In February, state Sen. Doug Broxson made a Senate proclamation in honor of Gen. James and pushed forward with the bill that will rename the Pensacola Bay Bridge after Gen. James.

After months of resolutions, legislature and politics, the renaming of the bridge to honor James is looking very promising. There was a community vote on what the bridge should be renamed which included several names.

“About 60 percent of people thought that Gen. James should be the name of the bridge.”

Jones is on the advisory board of the Memorial Bridge Foundation, and he is confident that the bridge will be named after Gen. James.

Time Capsule for the General “Chappie” James Museum & Flight Academy

“We think it has reached all of its challenges and that it will soon be decided,” Jones said.

Denmon can also attest to the challenges they’ve faced during the process naming the bridge after James. Those working so hard to make this change happen are almost at the finish line. The bill that will name the bridge after James is currently “sitting on the governor’s desk” awaiting his signature.

“There’s nobody more deserving that I can think of,” Denmon said.

Gen. James has undoubtedly left a lasting legacy not only in the Pensacola community but also in the rest of the nation.

“We want people to look at his life and respect and honor the things that he did,” Jones said. “His accomplishments are something that we in Pensacola can brag about.

This story is from:

Out Front Magazine- March 2020

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