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In Memoriam: David James, 1923-2016

Being the first African-American to buy a house in Winnetka was just one of many milestones in the eventful life of David James. His multi-faceted personality and lifelong work for social justice were recalled at the July 29th funeral mass at Sacred Heart, where he was a longtime parishioner.

Born in St. Louis, Mr. James moved to Chicago with his family at age four. His family put a strong emphasis on education, and his father insisted that he memorize the last two paragraphs of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

Mr. James interrupted his studies during World War II to become one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Upon his return to Chicago he completed his undergraduate work and later earned a law degree. He was the first African-American salesman for the Burroughs Corporation and the first African-American attorney hired by the American Bar Association.

Mr. James, who was deeply affected by a personal meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., was involved in the North Shore Summer Project and that group’s work to bring Dr. King to speak on Winnetka’s Village Green in 1965. Fifty years later, Mr. James spoke eloquently in support of a Washburne eighth grade class’s successful efforts to place a monument to that occasion on the Green.

After moving to Winnetka in 1967 with their six children, Mr. and Mrs. James founded TWIG day camp— still in existence—to bring together children from the South Side of Chicago with their North Shore peers. He was also a founder of the North Shore Interfaith Housing Council, now known as Open Communities.

WHS Board member Sally Schneiders recalls the passion and eloquence that Mr. James brought to every speaking engagement. She also remembers his kindness and generosity of spirit. He was never bitter about prejudice or discrimination; he combatted them with education and leadership by example. His varied life experiences and accomplishments continued to amaze even his own children. His son Peter recounted at the funeral that he did not realize until his twenties—when a New York friend stayed with his family—that his father spoke Yiddish!
Mr. James was a natural storyteller, and the Winnetka Historical Society is fortunate to have a transcript of a long interview with him conducted by Sally’s daughter Brit Schneiders as well as a video by her sister Meg.

More information about Mr. James and his remarkable life can be found here:

Winnetka Way: David James

Winnetka Way: David James (part 2)

Winnetka Way: David James (part 3)

Contribute your own memories by emailing curator@ winnetkahistory.org and indicate if you would like them to be added to the website.

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