Tag Archives: segregation

A Tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee Airman on a "Buy War Bonds" WWII poster, autographed by Dr. Cyril O. Byron and Bill Peterson.

Thursday night (2/17/11), I attended a Tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen sponsored by the Community College of Baltimore County’s Aviation Club, Black Student Union and History Club.  It was a thrill!  Guests Dr. Cyril O. Byron, an original Tuskegee Airman (part of the ground crew) and Bill Peterson (a heritage Tuskegee Airman–his father was an original and he was the paperboy from 1945-46, later joining three years after integration) shared some of the experiences of serving in the military during the era of segregation.

During World War II, many black military units were minimized.  There were exceptions, such as the 761st Tank Battalion that served 183 consecutive days following General Patton.  The Navy had the Golden 13.  Black nurses served, but could not treat white combatants.  The Marines did not commission a black officer until November 10, 1945.  And, the colonel in command of the Tuskegee Airmen was a graduate of West Point, Col. Theo Davis, Jr., where he spent his four years in isolation, no one speaking to him.

Those who attended the tribute heard about popular contemporary fears that Army Air Corps-trained pilots from the Tuskegee program might seek work as commercial pilots after the war.  Everywhere the squadron went they were unwelcome.  At one point during the evening, a brief clip was shown that featured three Tuskegee original pilots.  Capt. Luther H. Smith, inspired at a young age by Charles Lindberg’s daring trans-Atlantic flight, was shot down on a mission, but told friends and colleagues that he was treated better as a POW than he was in America or in the military.  Lt. Col. Lee Buddy Archer, the Ace of the Red Tails, explained how as a boy in Saratoga Springs a pilot who was selling airplane rides for $5 refused his father and added to his determination to fly.  Col. Charles McGee, an original Tuskegee pilot flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, logging the most combat hours (as far as they knew) of any combat pilot.

Dr. Cyril O. Byron, now ninety years old, was a sophomore at Morgan State College when Uncle Sam invited him to join the Army, in 1942.  After time spent in New York, he was transferred down to Tuskegee, AL and assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron.  He described Tuskegee as being as unfriendly to the colored units, as they were known, as one might guess.  They could not go into town.  If they wanted to watch a movie, they needed to make arrangements in advance at the base, go down to the cinema in one truck, wait while one man bought all the tickets and then file in through the side door and up to the balcony.  And, all this while wearing the uniform of the United States Army!  Dr. Byron said he actively chose to think positively adhering to his father’s words, “Don’t resent what you can’t prevent.”

The squadron would eventually be sent overseas, but would bounce around from unit to unit–all of the first few being British units–until they were assigned to an American base in Salerno, Italy.  Italian children would ask for candy then circle around the airmen.  At the time, they thought it was just a ploy to get more candy out of them, but then someone spoke to the children and learned that they had been told that black men had tails.  Italians  familiar with American culture would ask the airmen why they fought for freedoms that they did not have in America.  It was hard to answer such queries.

As an escort squadron, recognized by the red paint on the tails of their P-51 Mustangs–thus their nickname, “Red Tails“–they became one of the most requested units by bomber squadrons who had no idea that the pilots were black.  They were in such high demand, in fact, that one of the leaders named his aircraft, “By Request”.  A couple of years ago, Dr. Byron said a white man approached him to thank him for the success rate of the Red Tails, because his father had always insisted that had it not been for them he would not have survived the war.  Nonetheless, back on American soil, even German POWs had more access on American bases than the successful Tuskegee Airmen because of the color of their skin.  It would take 62 years for the United States to finally award medals of recognition to the airmen.

Following the war, Dr. Byron would finish his degree and then proceed to NYU for his Masters and further to Temple for his Ed.D.  Peterson would join up three years after the armed forces were integrated and through the military complete his education.

The presentation concluded with a final thank you from a CCBC aviation student, Doug, who had been a part of the Tuskegee Youth and Aviation Program at College Park, MD–CCBC awarded a $500 donation to the same program in gratitude for Mr. Peterson and Dr. Byron’s presentations and time Thursday evening.  Doug expressed his thanks briefly, not only for the direct involvement he had in their program, but also for the legacy that they had handed down to him from the days of segregation.

The evening’s events concluded with the movie, The Tuskegee Airmen.  It was a special evening and the parties involved at CCBC did a terrific job in bringing it all together!

Bill Peterson (standing, left, in red) and Dr. Cyril O. Byron (seated, right) sign autographs with Doug assisting (standing, right, in red).

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I. Introduction: Spaces and Places | Washington DC, the Place and Space, Series


Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, site of the 37th Washington Historical Studies Conference, Nov. 5-6, 2010

The Program for this week.

In honor of and inspired by the 37th Washington Historical Studies Conference held this past weekend in Washington DC at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, this week is devoted to the investigation of the city from the perspective of places and spaces.  This taps into an old love of mine–Washington DC history–and takes me back to my first career path out of college as a tour guide for Bike the Sites and a Program Instructor for the Close Up Foundation.  For the first few years after graduating from The Catholic University of America, Washington DC was my classroom, my stage and my playground.

The conference this past weekend was in all honesty indulgent!  Sadly, my teaching schedule and my family engagements prevented me from attending the entire conference, but I really enjoyed what I was able to attend.  It was great to discuss both the academic and methodology questions with professional historians.

What follows in this post is an introduction to the overarching theme I am following this week in a series of posts dedicated to Washington DC, its places and spaces.  DC is not like most other cities in the United States, nor other capitals in the Western World from which it was born.  The many unique circumstances and situations were both intended and accidental.  It is essential when discussing the history of the city to understand its at times conflicting roles which create challenging concepts of space in this city and capital.

The Place . . .

First and foremost in the minds of most Americans is the fact that Washington DC is the capital of the country.  As such it is the primary workplace and hub for the federal government.  For many people, the concept of the city begins and ends with this idea.  Like other big cities, people are drawn to it for career reasons that often revolve around our federal workings and mechanizations.  I know many people who have worked in the city for multiple decades but have no other connection to it.  When people use the expression “inside the Beltway”, they often refer narrowly to the offices from which the federal government is run, highly misleading if one were to look at a map and conceive of the space that actually sits “inside the Beltway”.  The “Beltway” is the 495 loop which encloses not only the District of Columbia but parts of northern Virginia and counties of southern Maryland–multiple jurisdictions, in fact!

Where Federal employees go to work: the National Mall and Federal Triangle.

Secondly, people in this country think of the great marble edifices that dot the Washington landscape.  While this includes sites such as the White House and the Capital, they are seen not so much as office buildings, but as monumental shrines along with the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.  These are symbols to be visited, photographed and cataloged in the family records (often on hot and humid summer days or in eighth grade school groups!) and are part of the DC civic pilgrimage that often further includes the Smithsonian Museums or the National Gallery of Art.  What’s more these are all free of charge (unless you pay for a transportation or guide service), making them further highly desirable because they make for a cheaper vacation in many respects than other family vacations as families can stay further out and use Metro to get into the city.  This is the “visited DC” as opposed to the one people come to for a job or even a mission–although, there is certainly room for overlap!

Some of the marble shrines of Washington DC: the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Finally, there is the awkwardly forgotten residential DC which is frequently only remembered by the people who actually live in or near the city.  It is entirely possible to visit the District of Columbia and completely avoid the residential portions!!  In fact, other than passing through the city jurisdiction on Metro you can spend an entire week in DC and pretty much avoid the city’s actual jurisdiction altogether–hotel in southern Maryland or northern Virginia, Metro to Smithsonian Station on the Mall and spend the entire vacation either at the Mall’s monuments or the Smithsonian museums, Metro back out of the city from the Smithsonian station and back to the hotel.  When you think about that, it is pretty astonishing.  But, in fact, people do live in DC and some of DC’s best cultural niches, stores, cafes and restaurants are in these residential neighborhoods.  (Besides, how much time can you really spend looking at museums and monuments before you just start to go a little numb in the brain?)

U St. Neighborhood in DC and Ben's Chili Bowl--best half-smokes anywhere!

. . . And, thus, the Spaces.

So, this small plot of land, under 70 square miles, is geographically a cacophony of uses, experiences and jurisdictions–you wouldn’t believe how many police forces exist in that small plot of land–DCPD, FBI, Amtrak Police, National Park Service Police, Capitol Police, etc…   There are many claims on this land and people experience this city differently: sometimes because of race or economics, sometimes because of politics or personal quests, sometimes because of greater or lesser understanding about how our country functions.

The health and maintenance of the city as well as the capital is difficult to achieve at times because there are often competing ends.  The city does not have full autonomy to self-govern, nor does the Congress necessarily have vested interest in cooperating with city’s requests.  City government is always difficult, but far more so if one has to involve Congress–and this has been the rub in DC’s history from the very beginning.  Solving its problems and accommodating its growth and residents has been an ongoing tug of war on top of the social issues that affected our country from its beginnings to the present.*

The week ahead.

In conclusion, DC is unique.  Whether you are talking about mayoral races or greater issues such as segregation, DC has always been a special case.  Again, with the inspiration of this past week’s conference presentations, I am going to run a 4-post a series looking at the unique space of the District of Columbia.  These will include a look at the city’s inception and the original conception of the Federal City, tomorrow; the locals’ space in the city, Wednesday, versus the locals’ space in the capital, Thursday; and finally, the city as it is a democratic stage and shrine on Friday.

In these posts I will cite some of the historians I listened to this past week.  Their ideas along with the many I have cultivated in the course of a handful of years studying and presenting on the city (both for entertainment and education) will be a brief introduction into the complexities that few people outside of the DC metropolitan area regard or consider, presented both with an eye to the past and the present.

*Note: There exists a much more sophisticated discussion about spatial relations in sociology and social justice.  I am not sufficiently well-versed or well-read to open an extensive discourse along those lines but they feature prominently in debates centered around urban-planning and spatial claims of social justice, in particular, and broader areas considering the lived environment in the U.S., including rural, urban and suburban living.  Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey and Edward Soja treat these ideas specifically in their works–the application of which on the case of DC is a particularly intriguing question (one that George Washington University doctoral student, Greg Borchadt, is researching and presented on in “Democracy’s Stage as Contested Terrain: The Spatial Politics of Washington’s Early Civil Rights Movement, 1939-1954” at this conference).

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A Pittsburgh fan’s case for sports in history

"Stan, Guy, love the show!"

Earlier this week I wrote about history and journalism.  I posted that day with a heavy heart because my favorite radio station had just been unceremoniously scrapped.  (In fact, I had been following the Twitter pages of the afternoon show hosts, The Drive, and they literally were planning their afternoon show Monday when they got the news that they were done.)  I think sports represent a really interesting an important part of social history.  My station was ESPN 1250 on the AM.  It was the Pittsburgh ESPN affiliate radio station.  One of the hallmarks of the station was the Stan and Guy show in the 10-2 slot.  This was a special show, because for years the two sports personalities had previously aired their show together on the local Fox affiliate’s TV station with devoted fans. Pittsburgh is a serious sports town.  There is a long loyalty born out of the economic trials during the 1970s, relieved by the success of the Steelers.  While the Steelers were irrelevant before before the ’70s the Pirates were not, playing in an America whose sports scene was still dominated by baseball (ironically, Pittsburgh and the Pirates face the reverse situation, now–maybe someday Lemieux will buy them).  This blog post is a short argument (admittedly, colored in black and gold) for the relevance of sports history in “real history”–especially, but not exclusively, for the 21st century.  (And, a tribute to Stan and Guy and the guys on the Drive for their unfortunate dismissal by a national sports media company who, as Stan has so often said, don’t get Pittsburghers or the black and gold nation.)

A Pittsburgh legend: Myron Cope, inventor of the Terrible Towel.

When he was alive the great Myron Cope dominated the airwaves in western PA.  Cope was not just a great personality, he was a great human being.  He inaugurated the Terrible Towel era (and in 1996 gave the rights to the Allegheny Valley School which cares for people with mental and physical disabilities, such as Cope’s autistic son).  The affection for this man was genuine from players and fans alike.  People connected with him.  The city’s history was connected to him and through him and the world of sports.  He was also a huge influence on every sports voice and journalist who came out of Pittsburgh.  It is illustrative of how important a sports community can be in some cities and how important the local media is in bonding that community together through its discussion.  It is that much more evident when you consider the charitable power that these same individuals have and exercise for important causes, locally, nationally and sometimes internationally.

To my mind a beloved sports personality and team in a beleaguered city is a unifying and positive force.  And, any city that puts so much heart and soul into its sports and sports personalities, as Pittsburgh does, has to have that element acknowledged when its history and self-identity are explored.  There are genuine points of interest for sociologists, anthropologists and historians.  Pittsburgh, in particular, is such an interesting case study, because so many people left during hard times creating a widespread but ever-loyal fan base (as with a case like me, exiled in Baltimore!) and because the city has evolved so much in the years since its sports teams stood for success while the city’s success, in general, had faltered.  We can’t ignore the relevance of sports in society, nor should we, be it negative or positive.  The problems in sports are reflective of society’s problems, both because of how they often represent examples of excessive and indulgent behavior in society’s vices and because of the heroism attached to these players.  But, by the same token some of the victories in sports have also been essential in our evolving society, including the emotional victories, such as the Lake Placid’s Miracle on Ice and the Saints victories in post-Katrina New Orleans; and, also the social victories, such as Jackie Robinson’s courageous first step dismantling the color barrier in sports and society, during segregation.

Consider the Pittsburgh Pirates, who drafted Roberto Clemente.  Clemente, a Puerto Rican, would become the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter (1960), win a league MVP award (1966) and win a World Series MVP award (1971).  He died in plane crash, in flight on a mercy-aid mission to earthquake rocked Nicaragua.  While Major League Baseball maybe littered with the stats of Latino-American ball players, today, Clemente was inspiration to a population that was treated like second-class citizens–maltreatment that continues even now.  In an era when one’s race still carried suggested undertones of one’s ability, Clemente challenged those notions with his work and gave back generously when he could have withdrawn in bitterness.  His foundation continues to give to Pittsburgh youth and awards others who give.

Art Rooney, the Chief--a damned admirable man.

During the 70s, as much of the country fell on hard times, the steel mills cut back and Pittsburghers felt the times more harshly than many.  Seemingly out of nowhere, behind a young head coach, Chuck Noll, the Steelers helped lift up a depressed city.  As the team gained momentum and became the standard bearer for the city, the team’s chief, Art Rooney, the Chief, became an accessible hero for the fans.  He walked through the city with a warm smile, a friendly handshake and cigar for anyone who came up to him.  Rooney was humble and generous.  He was the unofficial leader of the city.  When he died the whole city attended the funeral.  Despite some recent blemishes, the Rooney family is still one of the most loved and respected of NFL owners because of what they gave the city and society.  (At the bottom of the page is a link to the NFL Films special on the Chief.)

Super Mario! Twice the savior of hockey in Pittsburgh and a man who had a hand in every Pens' Cup!

Mario Lemieux educated Pittsburgh in ice hockey.  I tend to think that it was essential that he do so, because the arena the Pittsburgh Penguins played in, the Civic Arena, later the Mellon arena, but always the “Igloo” in our hearts–a unique architectural building now at the end of its life–had been built on top of a neighborhood that had been confiscated by the city, displacing one of Pittsburgh’s minority communities, through eminent domain.  (It is, of course, a recurring challenge for cities–just ask the former residents of Southeast D.C. who were displaced by the National’s new stadium–one constantly justified by promises of economic growth that do not often pan out.)  Lemieux turned a largely apathetic city into great fans of the fastest sport!  When, in the 1990s, the team suffered financial woes, Lemieux saved the day, again, and bought the team.  Only a couple of years ago, he saved the team for the city, managing to keep it in Pittsburgh instead of losing it to Kansas City, despite a sweetheart deal awaiting them in that other city.  The days of limbo were awful and as a fan then and someone now living in Baltimore, a city that knows something about uprooted teams, I will always be grateful to that French-Canadian along with thousands of other Pens fans.  Since then, Lord Stanley, the prize of the NHL finals and the most unique trophy in sports, has returned to the city that sits on the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers!

Redemption for Big Ben? Too early to say . . .

On a less triumphant note, I submit, Exhibit D, the 2010 summer of Ben “Big Ben” Roethlisberger.  I do not know exactly what happened in Milledgeville, GA, but I do know it smells bad.  If Ben did not sexually assault the college girl who accused him, he still behaved intolerably.  The emotion in the city was palpable; and, yes, I could feel it all the way in Baltimore.  What is so depressing is the deplorable behavior of all involved: if Ben did it, we will never know, because the alleged victim was too intoxicated to provide the necessary testimony and evidence; regardless of what occurred in the end, it is hard to understand why the bodyguard, a Pennsylvania state policeman, let it go as far as it did, clearly an accessory; and, finally the apparent utter lack of respect for other human beings exhibited by the big man on campus, and shared by so many other hot shots in our society, at some point along the way became an integral part of Ben’s personality.  Now, what we all wonder, is can he reform–does he even want to?  Again, I cannot answer that, and certainly not at this juncture, but preliminary evidence suggests he might redeem himself.  Perhaps, it would be fitting of me to traverse the Keystone state and consider Michael Vick.  If both men are guilty, Vick’s crime is the lesser but remains deplorable.  Vick, now working closely with the Humane Society, has returned from the pallor of a jail sentence and the probable conclusion of his career as a humbled man and one who still has game.  One may hope he is truly a repentant, new man.  I would be hard pressed to judge anyone for not forgiving Ben, but I would like to believe a second chance is out there if he is responsible and determined enough to fully earn it, all the more so because jail time will not be served to punish any action that might have happened.  I know that for more than a few Pittsburghers it will take more than a winning season to embrace him, again.

In a society where history is often regarded as drab, boring or irrelevant, I think it is important to take advantage of fans’ passion.  In this case, I am clearly talking about more than just statistics.  I believe that there is legitimate course of study and a way to catch the interest of a broader segment of the population.  Imagine, for example, the depth and value of investigating the removal of the Baltimore Colts from a city devoted to them by a young Ravens fan today.  Covering the Baltimore scene would bring up many fruitful research segues into the economic times and trials of the city that coincided with that unfortunate event.  (No offense Indianapolis, but the NFL gave you the team and Baltimore’s football history and heritage!)

Legends: Guy Junker, Mike Lange, Steve Blass, and Stan Savran (left to right)

So, sports are an important window into society’s soul.  In order to reach that window, we rely on sports journalists to boost us up and give us a glimpse through it in our contemporary world which shapes history.  Where some are comedic, like NFL Network’s Rich Eisen and ESPN’s Kenny Mayne, others are brash and contrary, like ESPN’s Colin Cowherd and Pittsburgh’s Mark Madden, and still others are in touch with the pulse of sports in society, like ESPN’s Chris Berman and Pittsburgh sports guys Stan Savran and Guy Junker.  Stan and Guy brought genuine emotion and real insight.  I will miss that and hope to hear from them again, soon.  In the meanwhile I want to thank them for great and moving times that I experienced as a listener.  Guy’s savant-like knowledge of Pittsburgh baseball earlier this year, a fantastic interview at this year’s training camp with “Mean Joe Green” and this summer’s discussions about childhood games and crotchety neighbors are just some of my favorite memories from this year alone.  I have been moved to anger, tears and laughter over some jubilant and trying years in the Pittsburgh sports scene and ESPN 1250 (online) was there through the last decade of it!  It was great being reunited with former Mountaineer and Steeler Mike Logan!  And, it was great having the Stan and Guy show reunited on ESPN while it lasted–may it return again, soon!!

Go Stillers!  Go Pens!  Pittsburgh is the City of Champions!  (Except Pitt!)

Check out this short film about the “Chief” from NFL Films:

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-game-highlights/09000d5d801c5078/NFL-Films-Presents-The-Chief

Myron Cope:

Decorative relief from the Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey

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