The childhood home of Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. in Pensacola’s Eastside neighborhood is getting a new lease on life as a museum and youth flight academy.
When renovations are completed, kids will be able to get hands-on experience with state-of-the-art flight simulators, as visitors take a trip back in time to rediscover the birthplace of America’s first African-American four-star general.
City of Pensacola officials, local leaders, and corporate sponsors broke ground Tuesday on the $1.5 million project that will transform James’ childhood home into a community space for students, visitors, and locals alike.
While the adults did the ceremonial stuff with shovels, it’s the visitors and students that will truly benefit from this community resource, according to Cliff Curtis, director of the General Daniel “Chappie” James Flight Academy.
“We have a lot of talented youth here in Pensacola,” Curtis said. “When we started the program 20 years ago, who would’ve dreamed we’d be where we are today? This new center and our flight academy is going to be the living legacy of Chappie.”
City Revitalization Coordinator Helen Gibson describes the project as not just a museum, but a new catalyst for Pensacola to help spark the revitalization of the Eastside Redevelopment district, support childhood learning, and to create a model for environmental practices.
“In addition to providing an educational venue for visitors to understand the early history of a historical African-American military man, this grant will also allow the project to be developed as a model for on-site stormwater mitigation,” Gibson said.
Pensacola mayor Ashton Hayward, who spoke at the groundbreaking, said that the restoration and new additions to the historic site are a testament to the city’s dedication to preserving Pensacola history and acting as a model for stormwater mitigation practices.
“What Chappie James did for Pensacola and our nation, well, that’s just amazing,” said Hayward. “This is a long overdue project.”
James was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force who in 1975 became the first African-American to reach the rank of four-star general. Born in Pensacola, James attended Tuskegee Institute and was one of the famed “Tuskegee Airmen.”
The project is a public and private partnership years in the making. The city-owned site at 1608 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd was donated to the city by the James family. The residence, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was constructed in 1909 by James’ father, Daniel James Sr.
Previously, the memorial plaza included his birthplace shotgun-style cottage, a granite memorial etched with his likeness, and the enshrined “Chappie’s First Steps,” the weather-stained concrete stoop that is all that remains of Pensacola’s first African-American school, run by his mother, Lillie James.
Museum, Youth Flight Academy gets new home
The new museum will be established and operated by the Chappie James Museum of Pensacola, Inc., a not for profit organization. It will feature interactive displays and artifacts from the life of James, spanning from his childhood in Pensacola to his career as a combat fighter pilot and accomplished Air Force general.
The flight academy will be the headquarters for the organization, which celebrated its 20th year in 2016 and has had nearly 1,000 students come through the program. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) tutoring and youth flight academy workshops will be provided to help prepare area students for potential careers in the field of aviation. Additionally, a state-of-the-art flight lab and new flight simulators will allow students to experience the challenges and joy of aviation.
“Students will have the opportunity in this new space to learn year-round and it will greatly complement our summer program and mini fight school,” said Craig Abernathy, staff member of the flight academy.
The flight academy hopes to continue and grow its sponsorship programs with national corporations, such as Airbus and United Airlines, to provide scholarships for students and provide funding for orientation flights to students each year.
“We hope this becomes a year-round place where young people that may be at a disadvantage in life can go to give them a leg up” said Abernathy.
State grant transforms site into model for low-impact developments
Last year, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection approved a $100,000 grant to develop a low impact stormwater retrofit of the parking area and site of the new museum, with a $75,000 match by the city.
The grant will fund the installation of porous parking surfaces, a dry retention pond, rain gardens with bio-retention plantings and vegetated swales on the site. The improvements will allow for 100% of stormwater runoff during a two year storm event to be recycled on site, reducing pollutants flowing to Pensacola Bay and Bayou Texar.
Officials said these methods will become a model for residential, and commercial projects and will simultaneously serve as a demonstration site for best management practices for low impact developments, showing simple installations that can be made by other property owners and small site developers as a means of contributing to pollution control and stormwater reduction.
The entire project is expected to be complete and open to the public this summer.