“We weren’t assigned. We were requested…”
(Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis, a Tuskegee Airman and Commander of the 332nd “Red Tail” Fighter Group)
About 80 miles from where I grew up, in Kentucky, is a place called Fort Knox. Surely, most everyone has heard of the famed 100,000-acre+ parcel of real estate, the home of scrappy U.S. Army Combat, Armored and Calvary units, as well as the Depository for U. S. Gold. But, not many may be aware of its unique link to Detroit, Michigan race riots, in 1943 or the “Freeman Field Mutiny” near Seymour, Indiana, in 1945— a stepping-stone toward President Harry Truman’s desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces, three year later. Perhaps, this coming Veteran’s Day celebration, 68 years later, might be a good time remind the world—and a few self-serving politicians– that even the most powerful military in history had to shake lose its racist baggage, before becoming the powerful example of racial and cultural diversity it has become, today—at least, an ideal work-in-progress, as such.
In the nation’s dark and dank war years (1943), Detroit’s expanding racial composition and manufacturing job opportunities, stemming from a new-found willingness to hire African-Americans migrating from the South, coupled with intense war-related plant production, sparked more bloody race riots in the city already plagued by Ku Klux Klan race-baiting activity. According to information gleaned from black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore and Richmond Afro-American, and other historical archives, race riots in segregated America had already exploded in Alabama, California and Texas, due to spiraling racial tensions from intolerant whites, already on the road to the “American Dream,” from the nation’s manufacturing boom.
In Detroit, some 200,000 African-Americans were already crammed into poor living conditions in the culturally rich “Black Bottom” (a.k.a., “Paradise Valley”), about 60 square blocks on the East Side. And, that summer, violent battles broke out, between black and white teenagers, fanned by rumors of whites having thrown a black woman and her baby over a bridge. Another rumor, that a black man had raped and murdered a white woman on the same bridge, added fuel to the fire. Racial gangs spilled into the streets, including African-Americans, white teens and white sailors, stationed at the nearby Naval Armory, to do battle against each other. The next day, June 21, 1943, the mayor asked that federal troops be brought in to quell the mayhem. Newspaper archives reveal that 34 Americans– 25 black and 9 white residents– were killed and several hundred were injured, as German radio stations clamored about America’s internal strife and racial injustice. In the aftermath, more riots broke out in West Harlem, New York, as U.S. Army troops occupied the streets of “Motor City” for another six months.
The following year, on May 5, 1944, according to archives, the possibility of an encore of Detroit’s race riots caused the U.S. Army to relocate the 477th Bombardment Group (Medium) from Seldfridge Field, near Detroit, to Godman Field, at Fort Knox, KY. At Seldfridge Field, about 175 African-American pilots, under harsh conditions of American-styled Apartheid, were being trained to fly the B-25 Medium Bomber on combat missions. Seldfridge Field’s Military Officer’s Club was closed to African-American officers and the U.S. War Department had issued an official reprimand to its base commander. But, the 477th morale and living conditions were miserable for reasons associated with festering racism, as well. Training logistics and defacto segregation led to the creation of two officer clubs– one for whites, one for blacks– at Indiana’s Freeman Field, about 340 miles south.
Attempts to integrate the white facility at Freeman Field were unsuccessful. But, a group of black officers, experienced in labor organizing and heading to the Indiana base, from Godman Field at Fort Knox, a couple of hours away, challenged the status quo on arrival. Against instructions, they entered the club and refused to leave, until they were arrested and confined to quarters. But, others followed their example and a total of 61 black officers were arrested over the next two days of protest. Fifty-eight were released, following an investigation. However, an additional 101 black officers were placed under arrest and assigned to quarters, after refusing to sign a statement certifying they had read a new regulation, Base Regulation 85-2, a technical revision to the original order to segregate the clubs. But, the 101 new arrestees were returned to Godman Field, at Fort Knox, pending trial. Ultimately, they were all released with an administrative reprimand placed in their personnel files. Of the 162 total arrested, three officers were tried, accused of jostling and shoving a white lieutenant. Two were acquitted. One was convicted, fined, demoted and received a Dishonorable Discharge.
In 1945, according to military records, on the heels of the black officer’s protest, at Indiana’s Freeman Field, the 477th was relocated back to Godman Field, at Fort Knox. On June 21, 1945, they became the all-black Composite Group—the 99th Fighter Squadron—under the command of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the son of U. S. Army Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., another 9th Calvary “Buffalo Soldier” who served in the Spanish American War and WWII, earning the Distinguished Service Medal, Bronze Star, French Croix de Guerre and Africa Star. In the 99th, Black officers replaced white command and supervisory officers and training was earmarked for completion by August 31, 1945. But the war ended with Japan surrendering on August 14, 1945. The 99th was downsized and reassigned the following year, then deactivated in 1947.
It’s also interesting to note that the leader of the African-American officer’s protest, at Freeman Field, was the then-future mayor of Detroit, 2nd Lieutenant Coleman A. Young. Plus, the appointed commander of the all-black 99th fighter Squadron, Colonel Davis, became the first African-American General in the U.S. Air Force. He was also commander of the 332nd Fighter Group—the famed “Red Tails” or “Red-Tail Angels” heavy bomber escorts, of WWII’s highly successful Tuskegee Airmen. Its nickname came from Allied Forces, due to the bright crimson-colored paint that highlighted the vertical stabilizers on their fighter planes. Out of respect for their air combat efficiency, the Luftwaffe—the German Air Force— dubbed the squadron as the “Schwarze Vogelmenschen”—the “Black Birdmen.”
According to public records, leading the defense of the officers of the Freeman Mutiny was Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the Supreme court of the United States, assisted by Theodore M. Berry, the then-future mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, Harold Tyler, a Chicago attorney and Lieutenant William Coleman, the then-future chief counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was General George Catlett Marshall, Army Chief of Staff and Chief Advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ordered the release of the 101 black officers.
Finally, the coup de grace to segregation in America’s military came, on July 26, 1948, when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order #9981, committing the United States to racially integrating the Armed Forces. Public records show that about 10% of the U.S. population was African-American, at that time. Over one million were inducted into the Armed Forces, about 11% of all registrants, including thousands of African-American women, serving in all branches, in all WWII Theatres of War operations. However, all-black Army units remained well into the Korean War, before being disbanded in 1954– another footnote to the end of Apartheid on American soil.
How do you feel? What, if anything, has America learned about racial and cultural diversity from its difficult road to desegregation in the U.S. Armed Forces? Please let us know in the ‘comments’ section, below. Thanks. “Backstreet Djeli” w.d.s.
(Initial posting on “Baskstreet’s Blog” @ rizingcubenterprises.com, 11/10/10)