— By Dino Robinson
Winnetka entered a new chapter in its history in June, 1967 when the James family moved into the village. David James and his family was the first African American family to purchase a home in Winnetka during the 20th century. The last family that may have purchased a home was the Scott family c.1880.
Though the move was part of a bigger local movement to integrate a community, James’ decision to move from Chicago’s south side Park Manor was motivated by the opportunity for a better educational atmosphere for his children. Forty-four years before James’ move, his father moved him and his family from St. Louis, Missouri to Chicago for the very same reason.
Born in St. Louis in 1923, David F. James was the fourth of ten children of William and Ada (nee Foster) James. William was a cook for a railway while Ada was an elementary school teacher. It was only six years after the East St. Louis race riots when David was born, and tension between races were not pleasant in St. Louis.
As the James children began to enter the school system there, William and Ada thought about educational opportunities in their area. As early as James could remember, his parents wanted, like most parents, the best for their children. Education was at the top of the list. Knowing that the St. Louis area had little to offer African American children in the way of education, the James family – all ten of them – moved to the Chicago Woodlawn area in 1929. David was then six years old.
“Ever since I can remember, my parents instilled in us the importance of education.” James says, “My parents made an effort to surround us with educators and the educated throughout our early years.”
Mr. James remembers his neighborhood as a diverse community, describing it in general terms as a 50/50 mix. “There were many white nationalities in my neighborhood. As the years progressed however, they moved out and were replaced with African American homeowners,” James says.
“At that time, I didn’t think about it [race relations]. Then one day, I became aware of it, but I did not internalize it. My parents had always instilled in us a ‘no inferiority complex’ in our personal make up.” James says, “My parents tended to be the buffer between these social issues and they facilitated assimilation. They fully believed that everyone was equal in this country.”
When James was nine years old, he made a trip up north to visit a friend in Glencoe. “It was like traveling a million miles into the country,” James says as he described his train ride north as a distinct difference from his city life. He never thought then that he would ever live out there in the “country”.
From McCosh School, David went to Lane Technical High School on Addison and Western where he graduated in 1941. “There were only two Black students then,” David says jokingly. “There was me, and there was him.” David points to an illustration in the yearbook depicting a stereotype of an African American person in a service position. “Isn’t that something” punctuating the comment with a smile.
Part of James’ lighthearted personality stems from his early life. He credits his parents preparing him, and his siblings for life challenges. “Let me tell you something,” James says, recalling the words of his father, “ there are limitations that you cannot do anything about, they are imposed from the outside. But the worst limitations are self imposed limitations…”
After graduation from Lane Tech, James attended Loyola for a year. Since WWII was at hand and seeing that a draft was inevitable, James volunteered for the service. “With the holidays near by and single women around after an early draft, I figured the field of dating was wide open.” James says. Luck was not with him and he began his service in September of 1942 with the 332nd fighter group class 44B at Tuskegee, flying single engine pursuit planes. By the end of his tour in February 1946, James had obtained the rank of Lieutenant and flown several missions overseas. After the service, he returned to Loyola and finished his degree in Classical Language and graduated with honors in 1949.
Following his spiritual beliefs, James was heavily involved with faith-based activities. During his college years, he was involved with the Federated Colored Catholics, a faith based group involved in personal spiritual growth. His involvement led to an opportunity to volunteer with a new experimental group known as the Friendship House in 1946. The idea behind the Friendship House was to break down barriers across the color lines. Out of the Friendship House an Interracial center was established at 43rd Street under the “L” where James volunteered his time.
Despite graduating with honors from Loyola University in 1949, David could only find employment driving a truck. David and Mary settled in Park Manor on Chicago’s south side to raise a family. Their involvement with the Friendship House continued, as did their interest in social justice. James eventually landed a job as a Senior Sales Manager at Burroughs, an electronics company, and Mary continued as a public service lawyer.
James’ career flourished after graduating from DePaul University in 1953 with a law degree. He was hired by the American Bar Association, the first African American to be hired there. He later became the Director of the American Bar Association’s division of public service.
He also continued to volunteer at the Friendship House as a speaker. His involvement led to workshops and forums relating to integration of neighborhoods in Chicago’s suburban North Shore.
James’ involvement in the Friendship House eventually brought them to Winnetka. The organization, involved in interracial justice, had housing integration as one of their objectives. Around this same time, Deerfield, Illinois was going through housing issues involving race. Deerfield blocked a developer who was in the middle of the construction of a community development project. When word got out that he intended to practice open housing, Deerfield shut him down and turned the site into a park. An interest group in Winnetka named the North Shore Housing Project, observed this process and thought that something could be done locally to ensure a smooth transition in open housing.
David and his wife, Mary, both joined this housing effort and soon were encouraged to move into the neighborhood. Interestingly enough, the decision to move north was not motivated by making a social statement, but for the interest of their children’s educational possibilities. This was the same decision James’ Father, William, made when David was a child.
Other issues for the family included the affordability of a home and general acceptance of his family in Winnetka. Regardless of that, James began his search for a home in the northern suburbs. “I approached several real estate brokers both black and white.” James recants, “There were five houses, I swear to God, all of the realtors showed me the same five houses in Evanston. All of them in what you would call a ‘changing neighborhood’.”
Eventually, James lucked upon a family wanting to move from Winnetka and David went up to view the home. “I asked what he wanted for it [the house] and he said ‘what can you afford?’” David recalled. “‘Give me what you think this house is worth,’ he said, and we made a deal.”
The James family bought their home at 1078 Spruce Street in June 1967 and physically occupied the house at the start of the school season in September. “The Winnetka Census data then showed a live-in domestic African American population at nearly 200 people” David says. The James family was the first African American family to purchase a home in Winnetka.
Winnetka has long been known to be a community of wealth and large estates. Its name, thought to be a derivative of a Potawatomi term, translates to “beautiful place.” It has had its share of issues on discrimination and fair housing, issues that are still debated today. In 1965, Dateline Chicago aired a program entitled “Winnetka, Outsider on the Doorstep” that focused on the integration of housing and schools in their neighborhood. The program featured a visit by inner-city children to a Winnetka school and an example of discrimination in the sale of one Winnetka home. Even after the James’ move and until today, the African American population in Winnetka remained steady at only one-fifth of one percent.
“For the most part, our move to Winnetka was uneventful.” James says, “There was one neighbor that seemed to have this concept that he would live in an area where he would never have to see a Black man. And another who was just an out-right bigot. They both moved within six months.”
James goes on to explain that there were other neighbors who were very welcoming. “There was a network of residents that helped us during our first years there.” Anita Darrow, a neighbor then, took the James children to school and introduced them to the principal. Anita also developed a close friendship with Mary James that lasted until Mary’s death in the mid 1990s.
James’ commitment to social causes, experiences with the Friendship House and his move to the North Shore community of Winnetka led to his involvement in the founding of Interfaith Housing in 1972. Interfaith Housing is an organization that tackles issues surrounding fair and affordable housing in the north suburbs. At one time, he was the Board President. On October 24, 2004, Interfaith Housing honored James’ 32 years of service and valuable leadership. He had retired from the Interfaith Board earlier in the year. The honor also included his 37 years at 1078 Spruce.
James sold his home in early 2000s and moved back to Chicago. The James’ home of 37 years on Spruce has been razed as of November 15, 2004 to make way for a new home in its place.
Sources: Original article appeared in the printed version of Shorefront Journal, volume 6, number 1, Fall 2004, edited for length. The original audio interview is available at the Shorefront Archives. All photos courtesy David F. James.