Gazette Article by: Betsy Landes
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2009
Former long-time Winnetka resident David James shared a place of honor with his fellow surviving Tuskegee Airmen at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January. This article, a continuation of one that appeared in the Fall ‘08 Gazette, offers more glimpses of his fascinating life drawn from a transcript of an interview conducted a year ago by New Trier student Brit Schneiders and a filmed interview by her older sister Meg.
In the late 1920s, when David James was four years old, his family moved to Chicago from St. Louis, Missouri. James recalls that at that time there were fewer than 200,000 African Americans in Chicago. Racially restrictive covenants—provisions in real estate deeds that prohibited the sale or even rental of property to African Americans or other minorities—were commonly used to maintain segregation in Chicago and surrounding communities through the 1940s. The narrow strip of neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago in which the African-American population was concentrated at this time was referred to as the “Black Belt.”
The influx of African Americans, primarily from the Southern states, increased dramatically; by 1960 the African-American population in Chicago had risen above 800,000. This put a strain on housing, schools, and job opportunities in the narrow area where the population remained heavily concentrated. James’s mother was a school teacher and his father had a high school education, which was rare for the time. Several of his uncles were lawyers. He notes that his relatively privileged family background reinforced the value of education, hard work, and success. As a teenager, James belonged to a Catholic interracial center on the South Side of Chicago called Friendship House. This was one of the few places in Chicago in the late 1930s where whites and blacks could meet and have an opportunity to get to know each other across the rigid lines of segregation.
David James joined the army in October 1942 and became a pilot in the elite African-American unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen. At the end of the war, in his transition out of the army, James was assigned to an engineering aviation battalion made up of white officers and 750 African-American troops, all from the rural South. As an officer in the still-segregated army, James had officer’s quarters, but lived alone in them, and dined at a separate table in the officers’ dining room. One day the unit’s chaplain saw James reading the new legislation that established the G.I. Bill of Rights and asked him to make a presentation explaining its provisions at an assembly of the battalion. Wanting to know the educational level of his audience, James went through the soldiers’ records and found that most were sharecroppers, domestic workers, or in the lowest rungs of industry; out of the 750, only 16 had high school educations, and only 4 of them had any college. This brought home for him how little had changed for these soldiers in the 80 years that had passed since the end of slavery, and how the lack of educational and employment opportunities remained as vestiges of the old system.
Upon his return to Chicago in February 1946, James finished college at Loyola University Chicago and graduated from law school. He also resumed his involvement in Friendship House. There he met his future wife, Mary Galloway, who had graduated from the University of Wisconsin law school and was, according to James, “light years ahead of the rest of us” in her commitment to institutional change and social equality. James notes that Mary had been raised in relative comfort in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. She attended college in New York State, and her train trips back and forth took her through the heart of what were then the most grinding slums in Chicago. According to James, she began to ask: “Why do we let people live like this?” and that triggered her lifelong commitment to social action.
James broke many barriers, from being the first African-American salesman for business machine manufacturer Burroughs Corporation, to being the first African-American attorney hired by the American Bar Association, where he worked for many years. In 1967 James became the first African-American homeowner in Winnetka. Interestingly, Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1965 appearance on the Winnetka Village Green contributed to James’s decision to move to the Village.