Pensacola native Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. rose to become the nation’s first African American four-star general. Now, the property where he grew up is now home to a museum and flight academy honoring his legacy.
“I go to school at Booker T. Washington. I play basketball, lacrosse, and baseball. I like to dance, and I like to do community things in Pensacola,” said 17-year-old Tommy White, who was one of several young people who attended the recent grand opening for the new facility, which is located at the site of Gen. James’ childhood home on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive.
White, a rising senior, is one of 35 students who are participating this week in the “Chappie” James Flight Academy, the organization’s 23rd summer camp overall and first from its brand new location.
“I love science and math. Science is like my best subject that I like to do. I want to become an astronomer and do cosmology when I grow up,” White said. “I’m looking into going into the Navy.”
Speaking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 7, Cliff Curtis, co-founder and president of the flight academy said recruitment of young people like Tommy White falls within their mission to provide an educational spark for underprivileged children in the Pensacola community.
“We’re not making pilots, we’re not having flight training. What we’re doing actually is we want to inspire these kids through the STEM program, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,” said Curtis. “We just use aviation as a learning discipline to do that, that they can achieve and do anything that they want to do with their lives.”
The Chappie James Flight Academy itself is not new. It was started by a group of African American pilots, including Curtis, who were based at NAS Pensacola more than two decades ago. But, Curtis says the program has never before had a place of its own to call home.
“At the Greater Little Rock Baptist Church was our first class of students in 1996,” Curtis said. “From there we’ve been in hot buildings; we’ve had church vans. We've had personal vehicles. We’ve never had a home for the flight academy, but we really didn’t complain. We really didn’t know we didn’t have a home, all we knew is we wanted to do something to inspire the youth of the city of Pensacola.”
Now, the flight academy, which features classrooms and flight simulators, is permanently located in a
newly constructed 1,500-square-foot addition to the original 900-sq.-foot home built by Daniel James, Sr. in 1909. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the refurbished home now houses a museum honoring the life and career of General James.
“Right here, Chappie James, first African American four-star general, out of Pensacola, Florida,” exclaimed Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward to the crowd at the grand opening. Looking around, he pointed to the quality architecture and landscaping at the site, but noted that not so long ago, the historic property was in terrible shape.
“Ten years ago, eight years ago, Lumon May and I were on the corner back here at Movement for Change, and we were talking with the late LeRoy Boyd and we were just talking, regardless of politics that this was unacceptable to have Chappie James’ home in the disarray that it was,” Hayward said.
Hayward also credited the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) administrator Helen Gibson for an added push to do something about it when he first took office.
“And, she said ‘Mayor, we cannot have this.’ And, I said Helen, we’re gonna [sic] change it. We’re gonna [sic] make it happen.”
Eventually, the Eastside Neighborhood Association and Eastside CRA Plan identified the city-owned site for $1.1 million in funding to preserve and redevelop the property for reuse as a flight academy and museum.
Ellis Jones is president of the volunteer Chappie James Museum Board.
“Our goal is to develop a trust from the community, so that when you think about the Chappie James Museum, you will realize that we have been diligent in our efforts of research; we have been diligent in our effort to produce something that is accurate and reliable,” Jones said.
Locally, General Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. is well known. He was born in Pensacola in 1920. He attended his mother’s school, the Lillie James’ Private School for Colored Children at the historic home site. Later he graduated from Washington High School and the Tuskegee Institute, where he launched his military career.
As a combat pilot, James rose through the ranks, and promoted to four-star status in 1975. He died just three years later.
Jones and his fellow board members have been digging deep into archives and working to drum up support for the museum.
“We want to be a community anchor,” said Jones. “We believe, we know, that when people think about moving to a community or to a city, they look at the intangibles; and, museums, symphonies, theatres, are one of those intangibles that drive people - and companies- throughout the nation to visit and stay in Pensacola.”
At this point, Jones describes the museum as a work in progress, with completion set for February 2019. In the future, he’s hoping to develop funding that will sustain the facility, so paid staff can be hired to operate it.
The effort has the full support of the James family says Dana James, daughter-in-law of Chappie James and widow of his son Lt. Gen. Daniel James, III.
“You know what, my heart is full,” said Dana James. “I know Chappie and I know my husband is looking down on this with pride. And, I know Miss Lillie is looking down on this and seeing all that has come about.”
James’ husband Danny died last August. She says he had long been a supporter of the flight academy honoring his father and excited for what the old family home site could become.
“We were here maybe 10 years ago and it was just the slab,” Mrs. James said. “Nothing was even thought about putting this together. It was just ideas and now to see it come together, I’m just so proud.”
The Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Museum and Flight Academy is located at 1608 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive at the Chappie James Memorial Plaza. More information is available on the Chappie James Museum of Pensacola Facebook page or by visiting www.gdcjflightacademy.org.