David James: Tuskegee Airman Embraced by Winnetka as First African American Homeowner

David James, the first African American to purchase a home in Winnetka, in 1967, was also a pioneer in his youth, as a Lieutenant and Tuskegee Airman who flew bombing missions over Germany.

This Veterans Day, I think of David James. James was a pioneer in so many realms -- as the first African American to purchase a home in , in 1967, and as the first African American attorney hired by the American Bar Association. James was also a Tuskegee Airman, the 332nd Fighter Group, class 44B. 

He had grown up on the south side of Chicago and while a student at Lane Tech High School, was fascinated by aviation. Because the Army was racially segregated, when James enlisted in 1942, he was forced to go to the only training facility for black pilots at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He flew in numerous bombing missions over Germany and by the end of his tour in February 1946, obtained the rank of Lieutenant.

James was often asked after the war why he would join the military and fight for a country that tolerated Jim Crow racial segregation laws. He would respond that things were worse in Europe, especially after reading "Mein Kampf," required at Lane Tech. He told a reporter with the Wilmette Life in 2001, "We lived with a lot of uncertainty. We just simply wanted a chance to use our skills."

David James was a founder of the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs (then the North Shore Interfaith Housing Council) back in 1972 and he was still on its Board of Directors when I became executive director in 1993. He often shared stories of his life with me, including of his military service, sprinkled with quotes from Shakespeare and President Lincoln, one of his favorites coming from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, ... to bind up the nation's wounds...” 

Following the war, he threw himself into civil rights work. When white friends suggested he move to the North Shore, he used to laugh about how realtors would only show him the same five homes in Evanston. 

Finally, after two years of searching, he, his wife, and their six children moved to 1078 Spruce in Winnetka (the house was razed in 2004, after he moved to a condo on Chicago's north side). It was a rocky road to acceptance by "outright bigots" on his block because of their race, but they were ultimately embraced by the whole community. He joined Sacred Heart Church, where he remains a parishioner to this day, and has always been animated by Catholic social teachings. Indeed, he met his wife Mary at Friendship House, a Catholic interracial center in Chicago, right after the war. He recalled to me on several occasions the story of how Anita Darrow of the Wieboldt family drove up to his house on the first day of school and had his children hop into her car, making them feel welcome in Winnetka.  

Winnetka honored David James by having him serve as Memorial Day speaker several years ago. I was happy to see posters with his photo in every Winnetka storefront. When the event was over, I asked a store owner for the poster, and I reproduce it here in the Patch media uploader. 

David James spoke again in Winnetka at the dedication for the Dr. King Monument on the Village Green in 2007. For me, David James is a true hero for all times and all people. James described his wife to me in a way that could equally describe himself, "concerned that every person be allowed to live a life free of prejudice and create a society built on justice and caring for each other."

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