The sky is no limit
Civil rights advocate, lawyer, and World War II vet David James (PhB '49) has made a life of breaking barriers
By Anastasia Busiek
“Man is by nature a terrestrial animal,” says David James (PhB ’49). “He doesn’t belong in the air,”
He is speaking from experience. James served as a military pilot and a member of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. He went on to become, among other things, the first African American salesman at the Burroughs Corporation, the first African American attorney hired by the American Bar Association, the first African American homeowner in Winnetka, Illinois, and a lifelong civil rights advocate.
James had always been captivated by aviation. As a child (one of 10 siblings), he would take the streetcar from his home in the Woodlawn neighborhood to the airfield at Midway to watch planes take off. He remembers Italo Balbo’s landmark flight from Rome to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
“I have a souvenir from the flight, bringing greetings from the king at that time,” James says. “Mussolini was of course the premier. It was a big feat—a daring expedition and a demonstration of the potential of aviation. It was amazing. It was wonderful.”
In 1942, shortly after enrolling at Loyola, James joined the Army and went to Tuskegee, Alabama, to train as a pilot and a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military aviators in a racially segregated military. James learned to fly at Moton Field in a Boeing Stearman, a biplane with an open cockpit and virtually no instruments, save an altimeter, a tachometer, and a magnetic compass.
“Flying was very primitive in those days,” James says. “I often say that the first automobile I drove didn’t have a self-starter, and neither did the first airplane I flew.”
Primary training lasted six weeks, after which James graduated to a more advanced plane with an enclosed cockpit, a radio, stabilizers, an artificial horizon, and a gyroscopic compass. “It was a big leap,” James says. “You have to learn lessons in humility—your senses aren’t reliable, so you learn to depend on your instruments.”
In the final stages of training, James and his class learned firsthand about the importance of oxygen. “The airfield had an oxygen chamber—huge, maybe five stories—that simulated altitudes from sea level to 30,000 feet,” James says. “To impress upon us that you need oxygen, they put us in this enclosed chamber and the guy conducting the experiment said, ‘Half of you go up with oxygen masks, and half without.’ I volunteered to go without. I thought, ‘I can handle anything.’ We watched those guys putting on their masks, and we started making fun of them, laughing, saying they looked funny. Then we started going up. At 5,000 feet, we felt good. At 10,000 feet, we felt great. I kept thinking, ‘Higher, higher!’ The next thing I knew, I woke up and the guys with the masks were laughing at us. We had all passed out.”
The experience stuck with James for the rest of his life. “The only thing that I guess I have a fear of is not having enough oxygen,” he says. “I can be in a situation, and I know it’s totally psychological, but I think, ‘I wish I had a mask.’ I know what oxygen can do.”
James and the 332nd Fighter Group flew skillful combat missions over North Africa, Sicily, and mainland Europe until the war ended in 1945. They risked and sometimes gave their lives for the Allied cause, despite the discrimination they faced both inside and outside the military.
After the war, James was eager to return to Loyola, where he studied the classics: Latin, Greek, and philosophy. He was one of just six African American students at the University, and he recalls being treated well.
“There weren’t enough of us to cause a fuss,” James says. In 1946, while in school, James began to volunteer at Chicago’s Friendship House, a Catholic apostolate devoted to interracial justice and race relations. It was there that he met a young lawyer named Mary Genevieve Galloway, who asked him to join a sit-in at a Walgreens lunch counter. “I thought, I must have some homework or something to do,” James says. But he went anyway.
The two married in 1949 and went on to have six children. Mary, who came from a well-off family in Wisconsin, was inspired to work for racial and economic equality by a walk through a poor Chicago neighborhood on her way to catch a train at the LaSalle Street Station.
“She just couldn’t believe people lived like that,” James says. “She had never seen poverty before. She started asking questions, and the answers she got were very stupid, like, ‘They want to live that way.’ Nobody wants to live like that if they have a choice. She wanted answers, and she spent a lifetime trying to figure them out.”
Upon his graduation from Loyola, James went to work for the Burroughs Corporation, a business equipment manufacturer, as the company’s first African American salesman. He chose the company because of its work in developing electronics, which James believed to be revolutionary. “I decided that computers were the wave of the future,” James says.
In 1967, James became the first African American lawyer to be hired by the American Bar Association, where he worked until 1984. He and Mary continued their work for Friendship House, and through his connection with the organization, James met Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to speak at the Village Green in predominantly-white Winnetka, Illinois, in 1965. King had been invited to speak by a group of citizens concerned about housing discrimination and a lack of diversity in North Shore communities.
“I drove him up to the speech. There were eight to ten thousand people on the Village Green. I said, ‘Good luck,’” James says. “But it didn’t precipitate a riot. Martin said, ‘These folks are incredibly receptive. Someone’s got to break the ice and move in here.’ At the time, I hadn’t the foggiest notion of moving to Winnetka.”
But, in 1967, move into the area he did, becoming the first African American homeowner in Winnetka. That same year, he and Mary founded the Together We Influence Growth day camp, which brings children from the South Side of Chicago together with children from the North Shore each summer. In the early ‘70s, James helped found the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, which works for housing equality.
His legal career took him from the US Department of Labor to private practice until his retirement in 2000. Mary passed away in 1996.
Harry Truman signed an executive order ending racial segregation in the military in 1948. In 2007, George W. Bush honored the Tuskegee Airmen with a Congressional Gold Medal for their service six decades earlier. In 2009, James, along with more than 100 other Tuskegee Airmen, attended the inauguration of Barack Obama by special invitation.
David James has lived a life touched by war and discrimination, but also by love and an unceasing commitment to justice. And through his bravery and determination—both in the air and on land—he has changed for the better the country he loves.
Editor's Note: This article appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Loyola magazine. David James passed away at age 92 on July 23, 2016.