Chase, James E. (1914-1987)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 9/30/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8788

James E. Chase was a popular and respected Spokane civic leader who went from shoe-shiner to the first African American mayor in Spokane's history. He was born in Wharton, Texas, in 1914, to a poor family. The Great Depression put an end to his high school education when his all-black high school closed. He worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps in El Paso and then he and three friends rode the rails to Spokane in 1934 to look for new opportunities. Chase shined shoes at a local barbershop and in 1939 went into the auto body repair business. He did repair work for the Army air base in Spokane during World War II. He became president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP in 1950, a post he held for 17 of the ensuing 19 years. He and his wife Eleanor Barrow Chase (1918-2002), from a prominent Spokane black family, were strong believers in civic involvement. James Chase was elected to the Spokane City Council in 1975, the first black council member since the 1890s. He ran for mayor in 1981 and won by a landslide, a historic feat in a city with a black population hovering between 1 and 2 percent. He served a successful term as mayor, but ill health in 1985 prevented him from seeking a second term. He died of cancer in 1987. His impact on Spokane can be measured in the many ways his name lives on, through the James E. Chase Middle School, the Chase Art Gallery at Spokane City Hall, and the Chase Youth Commission, dedicated to improving the lives of the city's youth.

Early Years

James (Jim) Chase was born the youngest of seven children and grew up in segregated Texas in the 1920s and 1930s. His family was poor, but he later said it was "a family enriched because of the ideals espoused by my parents -- our family tradition called for high morals, high principles and integrity" (Chase).

As a boy he worked for a time in a bakery for no wages -- but all the cookies he could eat. He attended high school at an all-black high school in Ballinger, Texas, in the center of the state. His schooling was abruptly terminated when the school closed at the height of the Great Depression. He never received a high school diploma.

Finding Spokane

He and his childhood friend Elmo Dalbert (1916-2000) went to work at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in El Paso, Texas, and there met  Harry Blackwell. The three men would remain friends for life. After about a year, they started searching for a northern city that would give them new opportunities. They sent away for literature from various chambers of commerce, including Spokane's.

"I guess the Spokane Chamber of Commerce did the best job, because they chose Spokane," said Eleanor Chase in a 1976 interview. "Why they didn't go on through to Seattle, I don't know. But I probably wouldn't be married today if he hadn't come to Spokane" ("Eleanor Chase).

By Box Car and Oil Tanker

The three friends hopped a freight train and made the trip "by boxcars and by oil tanker and even through one place on the back of a tender," he later remembered (Bennett and Bonino).

Once he arrived in Spokane in 1934, he found a job as a porter and shoe-shiner at the Spokane Hotel -- typical of the job opportunities available for a black man in Spokane at the time. He soon met Clarence Freeman, a bellhop at another nearby hotel. They both believed that better opportunities should exist for Spokane's black community and together they helped form the Negro Active League, a social networking organization, to advance that cause.

In 1939, Blackwell convinced Chase to go in with him on an auto body repair business, despite the fact that Chase had "never so much as pounded out a fender" (Peck). "Blackwell had the experience, I had the money; so we pooled our resources," said Chase ("Pair's Decision").

Chase learned fast and had good business acumen, but World War II intervened. Chase managed the body-and-repair shop at Geiger Field, repairing Army vehicles. In 1946, Chase and old friend Elmo Dalbert went in together on their own auto body repair shop, Chase and Dalbert Body and Fender, which remained in business until 1981 when Chase began his run for mayor. The business had its ups and downs, especially in the early years, and came close to closing more than once. Chase admitted in a 1969 interview that "being black was a definite handicap" when the business was struggling to get started (Coe). Yet once the business was firmly established, the issue faded.

"Actually, there have been no problems," Chase said in 1961. "We have found that color doesn't seem to enter into a business transaction. If a man wants his car fixed, he doesn't care who fixes it as long as it's fixed right" ("Pair's Decision").

Meeting Eleanor

Meanwhile, Chase had met someone who would prove to be the most important person in his life, Eleanor Barrow. She was only 15 when their paths first crossed in the late 1930s.

"I first met Jim at the Bethel Methodist Church," recalled Eleanor Chase in a 1976 interview. "There weren't many black people in Spokane in those days and we went out of our way to be friendly to anyone new in town. That's why I call him Chase instead of Jim. When he first came here, everyone knew him as Chase. He didn't especially like the name James" ("Eleanor Chase"). Three years elapsed before he began courting her. By then, she was in college, studying music first at Washington State University and then at Whitworth College (now Whitworth University) where she earned her degree.

"We were very patient about getting married," said Eleanor Chase, in a 1976 interview. "He wanted to see me finish college. He had a very deep appreciation for college. I've always thought that he's the one that should have had it because he has a very fine mind, but that just wasn't possible in Texas then" ("Eleanor Chase").

They were married in 1942 and went on to forge an uncommonly strong partnership. He later said that she was "the person who influenced my life the most" and that "all of my goals, desires and accomplishments are geared with her happiness in mind" (James Chase). She went on to become one of Spokane's top operatic singers, a longtime social worker for the state, a juvenile court officer, and a member of the board of Eastern Washington University. In Spokane, they were often referred to as a team.

Reading and Speaking

Chase overcame his lack of formal education through a curious mind and a voracious appetite for reading. Chase once said he bought their son, Roland, the World Book Encyclopedia to help him in school. Yet Chase himself ended up so fascinated with it, he read almost all 22 volumes. Then, after Roland was grown, Chase bought the new edition and read most of that, too.

Chase learned the value of civic involvement from his father, who had always been active in civic and social functions. In the early days, Chase's involvement was mostly with the black community. In 1950, he was elected president of the Spokane Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He served as president for 17 of the next 19 years, with a two-year hiatus as vice-president.

As president, he brought Rosa Parks to speak to the local chapter in 1956. He often served as a spokesman for Spokane's black community on issues of civil rights through the tumultuous 1960s. In 1968, he spoke out against job discrimination in Spokane and subtle forms of housing discrimination.

"I think Spokane has some of the finest people -- white and Negro -- you can find anyplace," said Chase. "For that reason, I think race relations progress should be greater than it is" (Powers). He went on to say that progress might not be "as fast as we'd like it, or as fast as Spokane is capable of, but there is progress." Yet Chase said throughout his life, that he had been treated mostly without prejudice in Spokane. "From a personal angle, I never knew much discrimination in Spokane," he said in 1981 (Peck).

Losing and Winning

His political career began in 1969 when he first ran for Spokane City Council. His platform was creating new jobs, luring new businesses, and passing a residential redevelopment code, sometimes referred to as an anti-slum code.

He lost this race to another formidable figure in Spokane politics, Margaret Leonard, but by a surprisingly tight margin. He ran for city council again in 1975, this time against an eight-year incumbent. Chase ran on a platform advocating open government, increased services for the elderly, and more recreational facilities for youth -- the latter a theme that would continue throughout his career.

He won the seat in November 1975 by a slim 447-vote margin. The Spokesman-Review newspaper hailed this as a historic victory -- the first black city council member. There were some later suggestions that Chase was only the second, following D. K. Oliver, who served on the council in 1896 and 1897, but the evidence is scant that Oliver was black or considered himself black.

Chase made headlines in that first year by complaining that certain of his fellow council members were wasting time in repetitive political grandstanding. He said council members would speak four or five times on the same subject and "just beat it to death and re-hash it" (Roberts, "Apologize"). Council member Marilyn M. Stanton demanded an apology -- despite the fact that Chase had not mentioned any council members by name.  When Stanton said that Chase had exaggerated the problem, he fired back.

"Don’t tell anybody here what I am saying," Chase said. "You let Chase do the talking. You talk for Marilyn. I talk for Chase. And I am not apologizing" (Roberts, "Apologize").

Spokane Politics in the 1970s 

In 1978, he walked out of the council chamber and threatened to resign when the council threatened to cut funding for the Spokane Area Youth Committee, a program Chase felt was vital. A compromise was later reached. Chase fumed again in 1979 when the city's finance committee recommended cutting funding again for the Spokane Area Youth Committee. "Do we have water running in our veins?" said an irate Chase (Craig).

These incidents were the exceptions to the rule. Chase was known mainly for his civility and his belief that the council should hire good people and allow them to do their jobs without council interference. When he ran for re-election in 1979, he beat challenger Neal S. Brady, a truck salesman, in a landslide, 26,788 to 8,608.

Then, in 1981, came the announcement that he would run for mayor on a platform of open government and improved communication with city staff and with the public.  The incumbent mayor, Ron Bair, decided not to seek re-election.  Yet five other candidates filed against him, including Brady. Chase and former council member Wayne Guthrie (1920-2000) finished one-two in the primary, which established them as the candidates in the November 1981 general election.

"He's ready; Is Spokane?"

The election was contentious, with a Guthrie staffer spreading a rumor that Chase had only a fourth-grade education. Guthrie, a real estate developer, also argued that Chase was distinctly lacking in ideas. Guthrie claimed that he, in contrast, had brought 80 propositions before the council.

"I disagree with him," Chase fired back at a candidate's forum. "He brought in 150. We were busy all the time, killing his crazy ideas."

Race was never an overt issue during the race, but it simmered just below the surface. He told Spokesman-Review columnist Chris Peck that surviving and prospering in a mostly white city proved that he had what it takes to be mayor. He said it showed a knack for finding allies and friends to work with him. The headline on the column read, "Jim Chase: He's Ready; Is Spokane?"

Spokane proved to be more than ready; it elected Chase in a landslide, a 62 percent to 38 percent margin. A happy Chase said, "I feel this is Spokane in action" (Crompton).

"Tonight is a night of history," said Clarence Freeman (1910-2006), another of Spokane's black leaders. "It speaks well for the type of people living in Spokane. They aren't looking at the color of a man's skin. They're looking at his ability. It's an accomplishment that's unheard of in the United States" (Crompton). Seattle, with a far larger black population, did not elect an African American mayor until Norman B. Rice (b. 1943) was elected in 1990.

Mayor Chase

Chase proved to be popular mayor from the beginning. The Spokesman-Review said "his political trademark is a big smile, a strong handshake and a complimentary word" (Roberts, "High").

After he and the new city council had been in office seven months, the Spokesman-Review contacted a dozen civic leaders, legislators, and former council members to ask them to grade the new council and mayor. Chase received mostly high grades. One former councilman called him a "real conciliator." Another former councilman said he "uses a lot of common sense" and "is conducting the office with dignity." A state senator said he had retained his attitude as a "people-type person -- no assumed mystic superior type" (Roberts, "High").

Ebony Magazine sent a reporter to Spokane to do a story on Chase. "We're bringing to the attention of others around the country that there is a black man who became the mayor of sizable city with little fanfare, no rancor," said the reporter (Ebony).

Steering Spokane

Chase's toughest decision involved, ironically, his refusal to ban a rally by the white-supremacist Aryan Nations, based in nearby Idaho. He told concerned black and Jewish leaders that the Aryan Nations, under federal law, had the right to assemble peacefully in a park. "I'm not afraid of those guys," Chase said. "I'm going to that rally. I'm going to see what is going on" (Prager).

He later changed his mind and urged everyone to stay at home and pray for peace and unity. The rally took place, but with only a small crowd watching.

In general, Chase steered the city safely through a tough economic era. He managed a tight budget, yet still helped push through a swimming pool bond issue and the formation of a new youth committee. He probably could have been re-elected, but he announced in 1985 that he would not be a candidate for second term. He had been slowed by back surgery and had other, unspecified health problems.

"You hate to leave something that's going this good, you really do," said Chase during his last council meeting. "The other part of it is, you're glad to leave something that's going this good. You know it will keep on going" ("Mayor Chase").

Accolades rolled in upon his retirement. The Spokesman-Review editorial board called him a "rock of honesty and integrity." Columnist Dorothy Powers (1921-2014) said that Jim and Eleanor gave the city a great "2-for-1 bargain." A retirement party for the couple turned into a "love-in for the Chases" (Bonino). Eleanor told the crowd at the party that Chase "was not a braggart, but boy, does he brag about Spokane."

Last Years

Yet soon it became apparent that his health problems were serious. He made few public appearances over the next year and a half. On May 19, 1987, Chase died of cancer. More than 1,000 people filled St. John's Episcopal Cathedral for his services.

His legacy can be measured in the institutions that bear his name: The James E. Chase Middle School, the Chase Art Gallery at Spokane City Hall, and, perhaps what would have been dearest to his heart, the Chase Youth Commission. The goal of the commission is to do what Chase did for all of his public life -- to value and empower the young people of Spokane.


Sources: James E. Chase, "The People Who Most Influenced My Life," Spokesman-Review, July 1, 1979, Magazine, p. 15; Chris Peck, "Jim Chase: He's Ready; Is Spokane?" Ibid., October 29, 1981, p. 6; "Eleanor Chase,"  Ibid.,  September 19, 1976, p. 12; Jeanne Bennett and Rick Bonino, "Jim Chase, Man Who Loved Being City's Mayor, Is Dead,"  Ibid., May 20, 1987, p. A-1; "Pair's Decision Fuels Dream," Ibid.,  July 24, 1961, p. 12; Rick Bonino, "Many Admirers Join 'Love-In' for the Chases,"  Ibid.,  December 13, 1985, p. A-5; Gordon Coe, "Blacks Say Color No Business Hurdle," Spokane Chronicle, March 8, 1973; Dorothy Powers, "The Condition of Negro Life," Spokesman-Review, April 21, 1968; Jack Roberts, "Apologize? No Siree," Spokesman-Review, September 6, 1976, p. B-1; John Craig, "Council Rages Over Social Services," Spokane Chronicle, December 11, 1979, p. 3; Hugh Davis, "Chase Expected to Run For Mayor,"  Ibid.,  March 17, 1981, p. 1; Kim Crompton, "'Huggy bear' James Chase Winner,"  Ibid.,  November 4, 1981; Jack Roberts, "High Grades for a Low-Profile Council," Spokesman-Review, August 15, 1982, p. B-1; Jack Roberts, "Talking Politics to the Young People," Spokesman-Review, October 28, 1981, p. A-6; "Ebony to Feature Mayor Chase," Spokane Chronicle, May 4, 1984, p. 3; Mike Prager, "Harmony Goal,"  Ibid.,  May 20, 1983, p. 3; "Mayor Chase Goes Out in Style," Spokesman-Review, December 31, 1985, p. A-6; Dorothy Powers, "Jim and Eleanor Chase Gave Spokane a Great 2-for-1 Bargain," Ibid., November 17. 1985, p. A-17.
Note: This essay was slightly revised on April 29, 2015.

Related Topics:   Biographies | Black Americans | Government & Politics

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