Winnetka Way: David James

Gazette Article by: Betsy Landes
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2008

Last spring, former long-time Winnetka resident David James sat down for an interview with Brit Schneiders, then a junior at New Trier. For a history assignment, Brit needed to tape an interview with someone whose life experiences— in a political campaign, foreign service, a war effort, immigration, or a civil rights movement— could shed light on some essential questions about citizenship. Brit asked David James to share his experiences, and the resulting 32-page transcript is filled with his unique and wide-ranging observations. Brit’s older sister Meg read the transcript and decided to film an interview with Mr. James as an independent project. Brit and Meg have given copies of the transcript and the film to the Winnetka Historical Society. The following article is a summary of portions of this extensive and fascinating oral history.

When David James moved to Winnetka in 1967 with his wife and six children, he was the first African-American to purchase a home in the Village. He raised his family here and remained in Winnetka for almost 40 years, only recently moving back to Chicago. The path that led him to his many years in Winnetka was long and interesting.

David James’s ancestors on his mother’s side emigrated from Haiti to New Orleans in 1804, shortly after the Louisiana Purchase. They were part of a very close-knit community of French-speaking African-Americans who called themselves Creoles and clung to their French culture until after the Civil War. In 1867 a yellow fever epidemic swept New Orleans. Mr. James’s grandmother, who was then 8 or 9 years old, and her older sister were not able to attend their school in the French Quarter because it was quarantined. Mr. James’s great-grandfather took the children from New Orleans to St. Louis, after obtaining a pass from the still-occupying Union army. His grandmother and her family settled in St. Louis. Mr. James’ mother was born there in 1889.
Mr. James’s family history on his father’s side is equally interesting. His paternal grandparents were both part of the Cherokee Nation. Mr. James noted that many people in the nineteenth-century American South were of part African-American and part Cherokee descent. According to Mr. James, a few black Cherokees still live in Oklahoma, having arrived there in the late 1830s during the brutal relocation of the Cherokees from the Eastern states along the “Trail of Tears.” Many, however, dropped out along the way. Both Mr. James’s paternal grandparents’ families ended up in Shawneetown, Illinois, where they were adopted by the Wabash tribe. His father grew up in Evansville, Indiana.

Mr. James was born in St. Louis in 1923 and moved with his parents to Chicago when he was four. Missouri had been a slave state before the Civil War, and in Mr. James’s childhood the schools there were still segregated. Mr. James says that the city of St. Louis was one of the few places where, because of their progressive attitude towards education, the Board of Education actually adhered to the “separate but equal” concept and insisted on giving African-American children the same education that the white children received. But Mr. James’s father, who had attended the integrated schools in Indiana, did not want his children to have a segregated education.

Mr. James’s father was born in 1884, less than 20 years after the Civil War, and remained very mindful of the freedom that had been won and the advantages his family had that other African-Americans still did not. Mr. James had to learn the last two paragraphs of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and is able to recite the words to this day, which conclude: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—and to do all to achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” At the end of his recitation Mr. James notes, “You never hear it, but that is his greatest speech . . . and he was killed six weeks after that.”

This article will be continued in the next issue of the Gazette. As WHS volunteers and staff continue conducting interviews for our Winnetka Stories archives, we encourage all residents to follow the Schneiders’ example and interview older members of our community so that we can preserve their rich oral histories for generations to come.

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