Tuskegee Airman, actor, and activist: A Father’s Day tribute to my dad

Chicago at the time was a hotbed of racism, and divided into racially segregated  “ethnic wards.” (See the story on Lorraine Hansberry.) Cross over the borders into enemy turf, and you would get a beating. My dad learned to fight, early.

Neither of his parents went to college. Had it not been for The Chicago Prairie Tennis Club, my father wouldn’t have either.

The Chicago Prairie Tennis Club celebrates over 100 years as a non-profit organization that supports tennis as a lifetime sport. A small group of African-Americans established CPTC in 1912 believing that “athletic competition and good sportsmanship are prerequisites for building personalities and character.” Along with Mrs. C.O. (Mother) Seames, the organization’s founder, this small group of individuals paved the way for African American’s Participation in a sport not previously accessible.

In 1920, Mother Mary Seames, and her husband, built four courts.

The first private grounds for a black tennis club in the United States are built by “Mother” Mary Ann Seames and her husband, who purchased property on the South Side of Chicago to build the four tennis courts.

My dad learned to play tennis on those courts, and did so well in local tournaments that he earned a tennis scholarship to an historically black college (HBCU)—West Virginia State College. It was there that my dad met my mother. It was also where he learned to fly.

This interview with Charles Ledbetter details some of that history:

Ledbetter was a newly retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army when he arrived at the campus 33 years ago. He’s always been an avid researcher of history, and the connection between the college and the Tuskegee Airmen is a particular passion. Ledbetter says the story has to be put in context with the attitudes of society in the 1930s and ’40s. “I was born around that time frame, and still recall all those Jim Crow laws and the other laws that one had to contend with if you were an African-American,” said Ledbetter. “You couldn’t go to the movie theaters, walk in the front door and sit where you wanted to sit. You couldn’t go to stores and try the clothes on before you bought them because if you tried them on you’d have to buy them, because no one white would buy them.” “You couldn’t buy a house anywhere you wanted to buy it, and you couldn’t go to any school that you wanted,” he said.”It was just a very tough time.” It was also a time when aviation was brand new.

With war raging in Europe in the late 1930s, Ledbetter says the government was worried about a lack of pilots, so they created the Civilian Pilot Training Program. These were established at 166 all-white colleges. “The thought in the United States was of course that blacks were not capable of learning to be pilots, that it was something beyond their intelligence to be,” said Ledbetter. But pressure mounted and in the late 1930s Congress agreed to consider aviation programs in a limited number of African-American colleges. Ledbetter says West Virginia State College applied for authorization for one of these aviation programs, having several things going for it. First, Wertz Field, which served as Charleston’s airport, was located next door to the campus. Secondly, a faculty member, originally from Chicago, was a licensed pilot, so State College had a qualified teacher already on site. Ledbetter credits the college’s president, John W. Davis, and the vocational and technical dean, James Evans, as being the dynamic leaders that shepherded the application through the process. And finally, the Aeronautical Review Board was led by a former professor and mentor of Evans. So, on Sept. 10, 1939, West Virginia State College became the first of six historically black colleges to be authorized to establish an aviation program.

“The papers were full of front page articles,” said Ledbetter. “The black papers were very big in those days throughout the U.S.” “They called it ‘the miracle’ that this had been done, acknowledging that West Virginia State College was the first of the institutions to get one of these programs. “A second competition took place when the government allowed blacks to be trained as commercial pilots. That program went to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and the other black aviation programs served as feeder schools to the Tuskegee’s commercial aviation program. But then the United States entered World War II, and the Army Air Corps reluctantly agreed to open its officer flight program to African-Americans. West Virginia State College competed for that as well. “It may not have been the Tuskegee Airmen, it may have been the West Virginia State Airmen,” said Ledbetter.

The Tuskegee Airmen would go on to military glory and become a part of history. Not so for my dad.

George Bodine Oliver Tuskegee Airmen

My father’s joy in serving his country at a time of war and doing it with pilot’s wings was short-lived. His skin color again made a difference. During a break in training he went home to Chicago and returned to Alabama on a bus with a childhood buddy, another airman, also black, but there was one difference. Daddy looked too white. The two buddies, leaving the bus, were spied by a group of 10 or 12 rednecks, who seeing them together, arm in arm – both in their uniforms, spat out epithets of “nigger lover” and proceeded to try to kill my dad and his friend. Two against many was impossible odds, and my father – who took the brunt of the attack, was hospitalized. A rumor got back to the base that my father had been killed. The Airmen were ready for battle; they broke out equipment from the armory and were headed into town to extract revenge. My father was quickly removed from the hospital on a stretcher to prove that he hadn’t been killed to quell the revolt. For this incident, my father was court-martialed for “inciting a riot”. Years later, his record was cleared.

I was an adult before I learned about this. The memories were too painful for him to talk about. I remember asking him once where he got a scar over his eyebrow. He said, “the beating from those crackers,” adding “I bet they carry scars too— ‘cause the two of us gave them a good fight.”

He shared one experience from his incarceration I haven’t forgotten. The treatment of black men locked up in a military jail was brutal. He said the sergeant in charge was a huge white man with big fists who hated blacks, and would impose physical punishments for the smallest infractions. However, the man had one quirk. He was obsessed with playing chess. When he found out my dad could play, and play well—he ordered him to do so with him. Every game my dad won got some of the men better food. The man at first was amazed that  “a nig*er had enough brains to play a white man’s game,” but over time developed a grudging respect for my father and the beatings and maltreatment stopped.

I am not the only member of the Daily Kos community with ties to the Airmen. One day in Black Kos, I posted the picture below, and much to my surprise, found out that a member here, who I knew only as “mallyroyal” was the grandson of one of my dad’s best friends from the Philadelphia Airmen, Charles “Chuck” Sutton, and that I knew him when he was a youngster. Kamal (mallyroyal) noted:

“don’t let the smile fool ya.  we could barely go anywhere without him snapping out on someone for perceived racism or condescension.  it was something like a family joke as to when it would go down.

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It’s often hard to explain to folks who are not black the anger carried by so many of us. We serve this country. We have been here since before the founding of this country. We have died for this country—in every war. And yet, we have not won the battle with racism, racial segregation, and white supremacy. We won’t, until white folks take on that struggle.

My dad’s stint in the Drama Club at West Virginia State had given him some basic training in acting, and thanks to actor and director José Ferrer, he was cast in some Broadway shows.

At the end of the  war, with a college degree and no outlet to use his flight skills, my father worked briefly as a sleeping car porter, then as a reporter for a Los Angeles newspaper, but was drawn to New York by the call of the stage. He and my mother quickly became a part of a racially integrated bohemian group of young actors, musicians, writers, poets and left wing progressives; many who had joined the Communist Party. His path crossed with a young Puerto Rican, who was acting and producing and they became friends. That young man was Jose Ferrer. Ferrer had read the controversial novel by Lillian Smith, and wanted to stage it on Broadway.

No stranger to working with black Americans, Joe Ferrer played Iago to Paul Robson’s Othello in 1943. In 1945, Ferrer made his Broadway producing debut with Strange Fruit, which he also directed. My father was typecast in the role of the angry half-white brother of the leading female figure “Nonnie,” played by Jane White.  

There were not that many roles for him at that time; black actors on stage were supposed to “look black.” Ferrer, coming from Puerto Rico, had no understanding of the notions of race here in the United States. Not that there is no racism in Puerto Rico, but the definitions of black and white were more fluid, and in Puerto Rico, my father would have been white. Joe was planning a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, and he decided to cast my father as one of the Musketeers.  

The press reaction was instantaneous; “Negro Integrates Cast of Cyrano” was a headline in Life Magazine. It was okay for there to be all black shows on Broadway, it was okay to have a few black actors playing maids and butlers, but to put a Negro in a “white” role was controversial. Joe stuck to his guns, and the show went on, with my dad in it.  

My father told me a funny story about that time. A group of reporters were hanging around outside of the theater to get a chance to interview “the Negro” when he came out. My dad removed his makeup, got dressed in street clothes and walked right past them. A Greek actor, also in the cast was chased down the block when he exited the stage door. They thought he was “the Negro.”

He had also tried his hand in some of the early “race movies” and had a starring role in Murder with Music (1941). He even managed to get my mom, Marjorie, a part.

The black left at the time and many of our black literary luminaries, were closely affiliated with the Communist Party USA. Because of my dad I was raised as what is now dubbed “a red diaper baby.” My world consisted of adults, black and white, who were angry about racism, angry about war, and angry about capitalism. We had entered the McCarthy era.

After Cyrano and during the McCarthy period life became tense in my household, and in the homes of all my parents friends and associates. The witch hunt was on. Acting jobs were slim, and there were even less roles open for my father, though he did do a few “race films.” My father’s dream of one day being allowed to play Hamlet (and not Othello) was deferred. Joe argued with my father – why not just pass for white or better yet, just be “Hispanic,” which was an option taken by several other fair-skinned black actors at that time. But my father would not leave his wife and children and father; who was a proud “race man”; nor would he ever put himself through the agonies he had gone through as a child, “passing,” by day, and black at home.  

We were living at that time with my grandparents in their brownstone in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that was predominantly Jewish, with only four black families. My grandparents had moved from Chicago to be close to their new granddaughter, and a Jewish neighborhood was the safest place for them to live in relative peace. Money was tight and my sensible mother, who had never been a “fellow traveler,” prodded my father to get a job teaching to stave off creditors. She wanted to get us out of New York, away from the increasing scrutiny of the Inquisition. We went south. This is where I first felt the slap in the face of the reality of a divided world, with signs posted everywhere “for Whites only.” “No niggers, no Jews, no dogs welcome.” This is where I got my first lessons on being black in America. It was a world where Negroes had to step into the street if a white person was walking on the sidewalk. I went into shock. This was not my beloved Brooklyn where my best friend had been a little boy next door, the son of a rabbi. To me, the kids on campus were strange, they didn’t know what Chanukah was, they were afraid of white people, and I had to ask my mother what “white people” were. Wasn’t Bobby (my grandmother) white? For the first time in my life I lived in an all black world, on the campus, and there was a fearful world outside in the little town of Princess Anne. We were surrounded by redneck bigots who frightened my mother and we rarely went into town. This is the world where I learned to understand the lyrics of the tune that had inspired the title of Lillian Smith’s play.  

Strange fruit …

A world where ugly stares followed you when you went to a store. A world where I could not buy an ice cream cone. A world where my father would stop the car and go somewhere alone and bring us back something to eat. A world that was like descending into hell, if you set foot off the reservation. After an episode where I was hospitalized and placed in a “Negro Ward” with no nurses, and doctors who were not interested in treating “niggers”, where no one changed the dressings of the little black girl in bed next to me who had been burned all over her body, who screamed and whimpered all night in pain, my mother put her foot down. We had to go north.   We left Maryland behind, and went back to NY to stay with my grandparents again. My father, torn by the need to feed his family, applied for and was miraculously awarded a John Hay Whitney fellowship to get his doctorate at Penn State and so by 1954 we were living in the almost all-white town of State College, where we watched, along with other young academics and their families the Army-McCarthy hearings in uneasy silence on a neighbors television.  

After completing his doctorate, with no permanent job in the offing at Penn State, in 1956 my father got a new job to go along with his new PhD. But it was in the south. My mother was unhappy about it but we moved to Baton Rouge LA to the campus of Southern University. Back to the world of campus living, but at first it wasn’t as bad as Maryland. Baton Rouge had a large and prosperous black and black Creole community, and if you were careful, you could avoid the signs, the slurs, and the racial ugliness.

For the first time, my father fit in, the campus looked like an integrated society – the southern creoles attending the school or on the staff were often as pale as my father. The only problem was that they tended to be a closed society, mired in lineages and aristocratic snobbery. But it was not the fearful sullen world of Maryland’s Eastern shore and for a brief moment we were happy. That moment was short-lived.

In September of 1957 President Eisenhower deployed the 82nd Airborne Division for the desegregation of Little Rock Arkansas schools.  Klan activity around our campus in LA increased, and my father and other young teachers quietly armed themselves with shotguns.

Militant activism by teachers (and students) was actively discouraged by the campus administration. Though a black college, the purse-strings were held by whites. My dad would never get tenure because he refused to be silent. My mother hated living in Baton Rouge, and so we left and returned to New York. Two years after we left Southern University, in 1960, students held massive protests

For participating in the sit-ins of March 28, 29 and 30, 1960, 16 African-American college students were expelled from Southern University and barred from all public colleges and universities in the state of Louisiana, their educations interrupted, their lives, those of their families, and those of African Americans forever changed.

When we got back to New York my dad found work teaching, and our home became a hub for black and white leftists, liberals, actors, musicians, artists, and authors. My dad both encouraged and supported my growing militancy. During dinner time in our house, we discussed and debated DuBois, Baldwin and Malcolm X. He took me to demonstrations, and got me to join a broad variety of black organizations. I remember getting busted once, with members of the Young Lords in December of 1969—and my dad showed up in court, slightly tipsy with a friend who was an attorney (they had been at a cocktail party) to bail us all out. He almost got arrested for cursing out the judge.

When my parents retired they moved from Queens, NY, to the suburbs of Philadelphia, so that my mother could be close to her family there. My dad kept busy, joining the Philadelphia Airmen Chapter, and the Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, working with their funding for scholarship programs, and he spent hours at the typewriter, writing a book and a play—which he never completed due to the onset of Alzheimer’s. 

The Philadelphia Airmen were the honor guard at his funeral.

My dad was angry. My dad was charming. My dad was a scholar. My dad was a wonderful husband and father. Most of all, he was my dad. 

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

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