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James Lee

Retired Chicago public school teacher and veteran World War II Naval aircraft maintenance instructor, James Oscar Lee was born April 1, 1912 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With family roots in rural Gloucester, Virginia, Lee grew up amid the row houses of North Philadelphia. He graduated from Central High School in 1930 with a B.S. in industrial arts. Central High, founded in 1836 and the second oldest high school in America, was at one time authorized to grant baccalaureate degrees. He went on to attend traditionally black, Cheyney State Teachers College in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, graduating with another B.S. degree in industrial arts in 1934. Lee also attended the University of Pennsylvania.

A caterer in 1938, his teaching career began at James Adams Senior High School in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1939 to 1942. At the onset of World War II, Lee served at the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Chicago, Illinois. At this facility, which is now Chicago Vocational High School, Lee taught aviation engine mechanics exclusively to white soldiers. Black soldiers were not chosen to learn aviation engine maintenance. Later, in the South, Lee was not allowed to teach whites who needed to know aircraft maintenance because he was black. These restrictions rendered him idle for long periods of time. In order to work and travel, Lee became a chief carpenter’s mate.

In 1948, the Chicago Board of Education’s new Dunbar Trade School employed Lee. Unfortunately for black students, Dunbar’s status as a “trade” school was soon changed to “vocational” school. This change meant a loss of true union apprenticeship programs and the guaranteed jobs that followed. Lee was also a pioneer homeowner in Chicago’s Park Manor neighborhood. Facing threats of violence, Lee and his family endured and lived in the home for over fifty years. After fifty-one years of teaching and numerous citations for superior performance at Dunbar, Lee retired as teacher emeritus in 1997.

James Lee passed away on July 15, 2005.

Accession Number

A2003.296

Sex

Male

Interview Date

12/5/2003

Last Name

Lee

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

Oscar

Organizations
Schools

Reynolds Gen John F Sch

Cheyney University of Pennsylvania

Central High School

First Name

James

Birth City, State, Country

Philadelphia

HM ID

LEE02

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Pennsylvania

Favorite Vacation Destination

Pacific Islands

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Illinois

Birth Date

4/1/1912

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Chicago

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Ham (Virginia)

Death Date

7/15/2005

Short Description

High school mechanics teacher James Lee (1912 - 2005 ) taught aviation and engine mechanics to white pilots in WWII and then taught in the Chicago Public Schools for fifty years.

Employment

James Adams Senior High School

Dunbar High School

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of James Lee's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - James Lee lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - James Lee talks about his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - James Lee talks about his maternal family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - James Lee talks about his paternal family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - James Lee talks about his family's relocation to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - James Lee describes his mother's occupation and his home life as a child

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - James Lee talks about his absent father

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - James Lee recalls how working in a print shop as a teenager influenced his lessons on cabinet-making later in life

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - James Lee talks about his childhood neighborhood in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a device called a busybody

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - James Lee describes an early form of radio and watching black entertainers perform at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - James Lee talks about attending Episcopal church services as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - James Lee talks about radio and television appliances from the 1940s

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - James Lee talks about his elementary school experience at John F. Reynolds School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - James Lee talks about his relationship with parents and students at Dunbar Trade School in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - James Lee talks about elementary school teachers and making toys as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - James Lee talks about attending Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - James Lee talks about the racial dynamics at Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the early 1930s

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - James Lee talks about cleaning teachers' cars in high school and his career aspirations

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - James Lee recalls working at the Spray Beach Hotel in Beach Haven, New Jersey during the early 1930s

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - James Lee explains how he paid for Cheyney State Teachers College in Cheyney, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - James Lee talks about student life at Cheyney State Teachers College in the 1930s

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - James Lee talks remembers Bayard Rustin as a student at Cheyney State Teachers College in the 1930s

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - James Lee recalls interactions with students at Dunbar Trade School in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - James Lee talks about the strict code of conduct at Cheyney State Teachers College during the 1930s

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - James Lee talks about crafting a block front desk as a student at Cheyney State Teachers College during the 1930s

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - James Lee talks about playing basketball and football for Cheyney State Teachers College during the 1930s

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - James Lee talks about applying for his first teaching position after graduating from Cheyney State Teachers College

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - James Lee explains how he became an aircraft engine maintenance instructor at Naval Air Technical Training Center during WWII

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - James Lee explains his desire to work with black soldiers at Great Lakes Naval Training Center during WWII

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - James Lee talks about civilian jobs he held in Fresno, California while serving in the U.S. Navy during WWII

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - James Lee talks about transitioning from service in the U.S. Navy to obtaining a job at Dunbar Trade School in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - James Lee talks about the history of Dunbar Trade School in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - James Lee talks about politics and race relations in Chicago, Illinois unions during the 1940s and 1950s

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - James Lee talks about racial discrimination in Chicago, Illinois unions and the history of black skilled labor

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - James Lee talks about the transformation of Dunbar Trade School into a vocational high school

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - James Lee explains how the disappearance of trade schools has led to a decline in black skilled labor

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - James Lee talks about his teaching philosophy and the lack of parental discipline he witnessed as a teacher

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - James Lee shares two stories about his relationship with students at Dunbar Trade School in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - James Lee talks about purchasing a home in the Park Manor neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - James Lee recalls purchasing house awnings from a neighbor in Chicago, Illinois' Park Manor neighborhood

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - James Lee talks about his efforts to clean up Chicago, Illinois' Park Manor neighborhood

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - James Lee reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - James Lee considers what he would have done differently in life

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - James Lee describes how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$4

DAStory

7$7

DATitle
James Lee explains his desire to work with black soldiers at Great Lakes Naval Training Center during WWII
James Lee shares two stories about his relationship with students at Dunbar Trade School in Chicago, Illinois
Transcript
Blacks weren't allowed to do this job [aircraft engine maintenance instructor] in the [U.S.] Navy or they just, they would miss--they were directing blacks away from those kinds of jobs?$$In the Navy, there was a difference between the Navy and the [U.S.] Army. If you had a, had a, a degree from a college, you would get a commission going into the, you know, to the, to the Army. And you could get a commission going into the Navy if you were white. So all of the blacks that, that was up at, at, at Smalls, Robert Smalls Camp [Camp Robert Smalls at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, Waukegan, Illinois], you had some guys up there with Ph.D.s, but they, they couldn't get a commission because they were black. So that, that, that was the difference, so I wanted to work with, with, with that group when I came out here. I mean, well, that, that's, that's when I went up to the, to the, to Great Lakes. But this, where I was teaching up in CVS [Chicago Vocational High School, later, Chicago Vocational Career Academy, Chicago, Illinois], the building then [Naval Air Technical Training Center, Chicago, Illinois], they were just all-white recruits coming in that we taught. Some of 'em were good; some of 'em were washed out. But then when the war [World War II, WWII] was over in the Pacific [Theater], and they didn't need as many men, then they wanted to close the school. And they didn't take any more recruits, and they sent the instructors to Burris Airfield [Waukegan, Illinois] from all over the country. And they sent some of, some of the blacks they sent to Pensacola, Florida, and they sent 'em back 'cause blacks couldn't teach whites in the South at that time. So, that ended that. So then they closed the school, and it was just ten black instructors left in the whole building. And we'd go there every day and sit down and play cards and have a good time. Our pay went up the service, you know, increments, and we really had a nice time. And then when they really closed them down, then they sent us out to Great Lakes, which they didn't have a school, and we were civilians. We just went there every day and sat in the cafeteria, and kibitzed, and got in our cars and come back home in the evenings.$--Sir, what was the most rewarding aspect of teaching?$$I en- I've enjoyed the students that I have, just to watch them grow, you know, just to watch 'em grow. Now, most of the students that come around to see me, they've bought their own homes, you know; they send their kids to, to college. It's rewarding. Now I had, I had two boys to come to my class. One boy's father owns a tavern. They're, they're teenagers in high school, and they're buddy buddy. So they come into my shop eight o'clock in the morning, and they stay until lunchtime. They have free period then. When they come in, I can smell whiskey on 'em. I call them over. I say, "Hey, fellows, tell me what's going on." I say you, "I know you've been drinking. I can smell it." I said, "Now you know you can't, you can't be in here drinking liquor and working on these machines 'cause you'll get hurt. So what I want you to do"--I have a big tool room--"go back there in the tool room and go to sleep. Don't come out. Stay in there, and I'll come and get you when it's time for you to go get your lunch." Okay? Now his father owns a tavern, and it's his job to clean it up before he comes to school, and of course his buddy is with him. You know, teenagers, they gon' sample some whiskey. That's, that's natural, you know, get a taste, so okay. So I said, "Now time to go to lunch, and when school's over come back here. I wanna talk to you." When they come back, I said, "Now you know you spent three hours with me. I don't want you to come back drunk anymore." I said, "Don't do that." I said, "But you don't owe me three hours. You owe me twelve hours, and you've got to make it up before you graduate." And they made it up.$$What did they do to make it up?$$They come back after school--$$Okay.$$--and make them hours up. Now, just that one boy, his father died. He's got the taverns. He's still running the taverns, and he's doing fine. And he comes around. He just had a big party at his place up at Union Pier [Michigan] for all of his classmates. He's doing very well. I had one boy, he used to play tonk in the lunchroom, and he had his deck of cards. Said to him, "What you doing with them cards (unclear)?" "Oh, Mr. Lee, I'm, I'm making money. These dummies around here, they don't know nothing." I said, "You don't know nothing either." I said, "Now you shouldn't do that." I said, "Because really you don't know the game." "Oh yeah, I know (unclear)." "Oh yeah, okay. Tell you what, one day when it's nice out, and I don't feel like going out to lunch, can we have a little tonk game, you and me?" "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah," him and his buddy. I said, "Okay." So one day I say, "Hey, got your cards?" "Yeah." I said, "Well, I'm not going out to dinner--to get my lunch--can we play a little tonk at lunchtime?" He said, "Yeah," so we played tonk. So in about a half an hour I had his ten dollars, put it in my pocket. So his buddy say, "Mr. Lee [HM James Lee], you gonna give him his money back?" I said, "Did he give you yours back?" He said, "No." I said, "Well, I ain't giving him his back. I told him he didn't know how to play."