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Black History Spotlight: America's First Black Four-Star General, Chappie James

Chappie James

Living in Pensacola, we are blessed to come across war heroes stationed in our city and surrounding communities.

Today, we honor a hero of heroes, Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. (1920-1978), a native of Pensacola, the first black General of the United States Air Force, and the first black officer in the history of the United States military to attain 4-star full General rank. And those are just the beginnings of a trailblazer with an illustrious career that spanned three wars, who continued in public and military service and was labeled an eloquent spokesman for the American Dream to the youth of our communities.

General James Jr. was born in a still segregated neighborhood in Pensacola. A park dedicated to his memory contains his “first steps,” which is a landmark of his mother’s school for black children.

The youngest of 17 children, General James Jr.’s black heritage did not prevent him from achieving a spectrum of success as a military man, civilian, and patriot. Growing up, he dreamed of becoming a pilot watching planes take flight from the Pensacola Naval Air Station. One day, General James, Jr., the Pensacola native and admirer of the sky would soar high. He graduated from high school and continued on to college at the Tuskegee Institute, the famous African-African school born of legends. He pursued a degree in Physical Education and, in his senior year with the war on the horizon, he joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program in Tuskegee, earning himself a pilot’s license.

Despite battling many obstacles and racial prejudices of the times, he fought for a position as a military pilot and received one as a 2nd lieutenant, becoming a lead flight instructor for the infamous all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron. Although his leadership in WWII alone is deserving of lifetime recognition, General James Jr. was just beginning his touch of greatness in a time of military renaissance. This real-life “Rambo” continued his military career in the Air Force to fly fighters on 101 missions in the Korean War. In the Vietnam War, General James Jr. received Colonel status and was the Vice Commander for 78 combat missions in North Vietnam, including the most successful “Bolo MIG Sweep,” destroying seven communist MIG 21, the largest enemy destruction of any single combat mission.

After the Vietnam War, General James Jr. returned to Florida at Eglin Air Force Base. In 1969 he was named Florida’s Outstanding Man of the Year and he also received the Distinguished Service Award. These civic honors were well-founded in the General’s love for man and country, which went well recognized through his public and military service and natural grace in public relations.

By 1975, General James Jr. promoted to attain 4-star General and assigned as commander-in-chief of NORAD/ADCOM, thus being assigned operational command of all the strategic aerospace forces the United States and Canada. In 1977, he assumed the duty as a special assistant to the chief of staff for the United States Air Force.

Undoubtedly, General James Jr. left his mark on military and public affairs, being awarded medals and accolades too numerous to list here. General James Jr. was also awarded honorary law degrees from the University of West Florida (1971), the University of Akron (1973), Virginia State College (1975), and St. Louis University (1976) for his many works in public affairs, including his leadership efforts to inspire American youth, particularly minorities. But perhaps the greatest legacy of this most celebrated Tuskegee Airman is that he never allowed his black heritage to stand in his way, but broke down barriers for himself and others by his determination to live the American Dream.