Born in 1914 to a working-class African American family in dusty Wharton, Texas, James E. Chase might not have seemed like a future mayor. The youngest of seven, money was right in his family, although his childhood job at a bakery did pay in cookies. Forced to drop out of high school during the Great Depression, Chase, along with friends Harry Blackwell and Elmo Dalbert (also destined to become civil rights leaders), hopped on a train and bummed their way north to Spokane in 1934.
Chase found his first work shining shoes at the Spokane Hotel. It was as good a job as anyone could hope for on the tail end of the Depression. Chase believed in greater opportunity, and later founded the Negro Active League, which advanced his cause through social networking. He also opened an auto-body shop which would aid in repairs at Fairchild AFB during World War II.
Chase met his wife Eleanor and married in 1942. She, part of a long lineage of Spokanites, would go on to become a social worker, member of the EWU and Whitworth Board of Trustees, and top operatic singer. With his wife’s strong will by his side and his father’s civil rights beliefs, Chase was led to the cause, and in 1950 he was elected as the president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, his first of 17 years in the role.
Chase would go on to be elected to the city council in 1975 (winning his seat against an eight-year incumbent), an historic victory as being the first black city council member. Chase spoke openly about the little work the council actually got done and fought for new issues to be discussed and followed through on. In 1981 Chase was elected as first black mayor in Spokane and by a landslide 62% margin.
Chase proved popular as mayor. He got the city through some tough economic years and instituted programs like the "1% for Art", which not only put art in city buildings, but lives on in the Chase art gallery outside City Hall. He also helped join the black community and Spokane at large in a stronger sense of "togetherness." Yet in 1985, after only one term, Chase revealed he would not be running for reelection. He received critical accolades in his retirement. James Chase passed away in 1987 due to cancer. With many institutions bearing his name, such as the Chase Community Center, he left behind a legacy of civic duty and steadfast honor for all of Spokane to remember.