David James had just completed his duty as a corporal with the U.S. Marine Corps. The Miami-born, Miami Jackson High grad spotted an ad in the newspaper and figured he had seen his future.
The city of Miami was looking for a firefighter in the early ’70s, and James, who grew up in Brownsville, applied.
He was declined. Too tall, they said.
“At the time, they didn’t want blacks on the force,” remembers his sister Charlene Butler of her six-foot-four-inch brother, who died Oct. 24 at 63.
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But James immediately applied for the same position with the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department and was hired in 1974. He would spend more than 35 years in the field. He retired in 2011, as fire chief for Delray Beach Fire Rescue Department.
The Buffalo Fire Department hired James as its deputy fire commissioner in 2004, the first African-American in that position. Three years later, he became the first black fire chief for Delray Beach.
“He took our mother’s advice to heart: ‘To much is given, to much is required.’ She believed in giving back to community service and David believed in helping the youth,” Butler said.
Along the way, James earned a bachelor’s of public administration degree at Barry University in 1999. For decades, he served as a motivational speaker for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, churches and community groups. One of his favorite roles was as regional cadre leader for the schools’ 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project.
“He was always talking to them about church and religion and faith,” Butler said. “He started the Black Firefighters Association to encourage students and firefighters to engage with the young men so they could look at it as an avenue of employment.”
He did a lot of innovative things.
Charlene Butler, on her firefighter brother David James.
As president of the Progressive Firefighters’ Association in 1995, James called for changes at his alma mater, Miami Dade Community College. The group felt the school’s paramedic training program made it difficult for blacks to get into the program and to be graded fairly.
“We may never have a smoking gun,” James said in a 1995 Miami Herald article. “But I know as a firefighter where there’s smoke, we go to the utmost degree to track it. Because if you don’t identify what’s causing the smoke, pretty soon you could have a major fire.”
For his efforts, Miami Dade College inducted James into its Hall of Fame in 2008. Success South Florida magazine named James among South Florida’s 50 most powerful black professionals in 2009. Bethune Cookman College recognized James for outstanding service in 1997. The International Association of Black Professional Firefighters named James its chief officer of the year in 2005.
In addition to Butler, James is survived by his wife, Tanya James; his children Lauren and Michael James; grandson, Zion James McKenzie; sister Theda James Milton; and brothers, Donald Clarke James and Henry James.
A viewing will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday and service at 11 a.m. Saturday, both at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church of Miami Gardens, 21311 NW 34th Ave.