For the past few months, a citizen’s group has been ramping up their appeal for legislation to name the new Pensacola Bay Bridge in honor of Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr.
While the proposal has been gaining momentum, it doesn’t yet have the unanimous support needed to move forward this year.
But, backers are undeterred.
“We believe there is really no appropriate memorial to the general in this town,” proclaimed local businessman and Marine Corps veteran Cris Dosev, who says Pensacola’s new museum and flight academy - and state government building - that bear the general’s name are great, but not enough.
While running for congress last year, Dosev unveiled the idea to name the new span between Pensacola and Gulf Breeze for General Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. and erect a statue in his honor.
“You could imagine people would be coming right off like this, right, and they’d be greeted by Gen. James, you know, holding his helmet and an airplane,” said Dosev, describing what motorists would see as they crossed the bridge into Pensacola. “I think that would be phenomenal.”
On a recent weekday morning, he envisions a monument to Gen. James, in the greenspace at the bridge landing where Pensacola’s City of Five Flags display once sat.
But, where to locate a monument is secondary to getting the naming support needed from local elected officials.
Dosev is forming a board with like-minded individuals, who’ve been helping him make the case that Gen. James is most deserving of the honor - as a Pensacola native, who served with the famed Tuskegee Airman and rose to become first African-American four-star general in the U.S. armed forces.
“(He) served during three wars, fought in two; 180 combat missions,” Dosev began. Continuing, he recounted the story of Gen. James staring down Muammar Gadaffi because he wanted to take over that base in Libya, and later becoming a four star general and the commander of the North American Air Defense Command.
“It doesn’t matter what color you are, who you are, those are achievements that are rarely met by many people that have served in the military.”
In January and February, backers of the idea to name the bridge for James started officially pitching their idea to each of the local governmental bodies involved. So far, they’re two-for-four, with the City of Gulf Breeze yet to put the item on their agenda.
“A six-to-one vote, Pensacola, the city of Pensacola: I think that’s an overwhelming majority of folks seeing the merit,” said Dosev. Proudly, he added the fact that his group garnered unanimous support from Santa Rosa County, where three of the five commissioners happen to be veterans. “And, let me tell you what, we are so grateful for what they did for us, because they didn’t equivocate.”
Escambia County has yet to buy in.
At their Feb. 21 meeting, Escambia County commissioners voted to form a committee to assess naming options and give residents a chance to weigh in.
“I simply say this; in order to do what’s being requested requires that we have to strip the current designation from that bridge,” said Commissioner Jeff Bergosh, referencing that the span is currently named for former state senate president Phillip D. Beall, Sr.
“When a new replacement structure is to be completed, constructed, to replace an existing structure, absent legislative action, it carries the original designation.”
A transfer of Beall’s name is what his descendants are fighting for, despite the common practice of bestowing new bridges with new names.
For example, the original 1931 bridge, now the fishing pier, was later named for Thomas Johnson. Johnson’s name was removed when the current 1960 replacement span was named in memory of Beall.
Although Bergosh supports local efforts to memorialize Gen. James, he’s opposed to totally removing Beall’s name, and he’s not moved by revelations that the former state senator sponsored legislation to ban African-Americans from voting in local elections in the 1930’s.
“No man’s perfect,” proclaimed Bergosh, pointing to the historical realities that were in play at the time. “If we’re going to be the self-anointed memorial and monument police, then there’s not going to be many statues left.”
As noted by Bergosh, legislative action is required to change the bridge name.
While District 1 Republican Rep. Mike Hill generally agrees on the issue of monuments, in this case, the military veteran is favor of a new bridge designation that would honor Gen. James, who in 1976 spoke to Hill’s freshman class at the Air Force Academy.
“I think that is entirely appropriate,” said Hill. “I think it would be fantastic that what we would be showcasing, not only for our area but to the nation, that we are honoring this great American.”
Hill has filed a draft bill to that effect, with a similar measure from Sen. Daryl Rouson, a Democrat from Hillsborough County, but he says time is running out for it to move forward this year.
“In order for it to be part of this session, it has to be filed before we begin session, which is on March 5,” Hill explained. “So, it has to be done before then, and it looks like that is not going to happen.”
Hill says the main hold up is the fact that the renaming proposal currently lacks the unanimous support required from all the affected local governmental entities.
That means another year before any action can be taken.
For his part, Cris Dosev is disappointed with the delay, since he wanted to have everything in place for a monument to Gen. James to be ready when the bridge opens in 2021.
But, acknowledging the reality of the situation, he and his supporters plan to regroup and use the additional time to raise awareness and support in the community.
“You know, we have a plan to incorporate this in the local area grammar schools, the high schools, the higher (education) institutions,” explained Dosev. “So we are now aiming all of our fires to Feb. 11, 2020.”
That date marks Gen. James’ 100th birthday.