In Pensacola, we love our deep and abiding connection to the military.
Generations of young women and men from Northwest Florida have gone on to make their families and communities proud with their service in all branches of the armed forces. So, you really must do something special to stand out in the locals’ eyes.
When a Pensacola native took the helm at the North American Aerospace Defense Command – NORAD – in the middle of the Cold War, that was noteworthy. Add to the mix that Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., was the first four-star U.S. Air Force general who also happened to be African American, and that’s the stuff that national history and local legends are made of.
Born February 11, 1920, in Pensacola, James’ biography reads like a warrior aviator’s 20th-century dream: He was a member of the storied Tuskegee Air Men, the all-black squadron of pilots trained in Alabama for service in World War II. James went on to fly combat missions in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, and ultimately command the base charged with keeping North America safe.
After flying combat missions in Southeast Asia, James assumed command of Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya in 1969, in the wake of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s coup. He is said to have faced off with the rising dictator with his hand on his sidearm.
James was appointed as deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in March 1970 and was designated principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in April 1973.
President Gerald Ford promoted James to four-star status and assigned him as commander at NORAD/ADCOM at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., on Sept. 1, 1975. In these capacities, he had operational command of all U.S. and Canadian strategic aerospace defense forces.
James assumed duty as a special assistant to the chief of staff of the Air Force on Dec. 6, 1977. He passed away in February 1978, at the age of only 58. He is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
His distinguished and historic service spurred local preservationists to restore James’ childhood home in Pensacola. The Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Historic Homesite is located at 1606 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., near downtown Pensacola.
The 900-square foot residence was built in 1909 by James’ father, Daniel James, Sr. The home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was renovated by the City of Pensacola in a $1.1 million project in 2017.
In addition to being the future general’s birthplace, the home served as a place where neighborhood African-American children went for tutoring services. James' mother, Lillie Ann James, opened a small school behind the family home to help educate children in the community. As demand grew, the James family bought the home next door to make room for more pupils. James attended his mother’s school before enrolling in Pensacola’s Booker T. Washington High School.
Today, the complex on MLK Drive not only includes the historic home and museum, but also a new facility which is home to the Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Flight Academy, an institution that seeks to instill an interest in science, math and engineering to poor and disadvantaged children. The program is free to kids ages 13 to 18 whose parents cannot afford quality summer programs and is funded through community donations and sponsors. Acceptance is on a first-come, first-served basis.
Flight instructors, consisting of active/retired military and civilian pilots, teach the weeklong, no-cost summer program to about 35 students. Throughout the week, the students get to take field trips to Pensacola International Airport, an Airbus and Coast Guard tour in Mobile, and Pensacola Naval Air Station. The week culminates with each student co-piloting an aircraft at Ferguson Airport, with the help of a certified pilot, of course.
James’ place in Pensacola history is cemented not only by the activities at his historic site, but also by the new $400 million bridge currently under construction between Pensacola and Gulf Breeze. The span is set to be named the General Daniel “Chappie” James Memorial Bridge.