February is Black History Month. It’s a time earmarked for emphasizing and educating about the tragedies and triumphs, the prejudices and the fight for equality that continues today.
It’s a history that began in this country with slavery, and now focuses on the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, President Barack Obama and others who sought to break down the racial barriers.
Sometimes, though, people need only to get to know their neighbors to meet someone who can testify to the injustices that African Americans have endured.
Les Williams lives with his wife and daughter in a two-story home in a decade-old housing development in Patterson. It’s been a tough transition for the 95-year-old, moving a year ago from the more familiar surroundings of San Mateo, where he spent most of his life, to the quiet, small town on the county’s West Side.
Few, if any, of his neighbors know Williams served during World War II as a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first black aviators in American military history. Williams, in fact, rose to the rank of captain.
Nor would they know that he was an accomplished tap dancer who ran a dance studio in San Mateo for 30 years or that he graduated from Stanford Law and became an attorney at age 50. Or that his cousin Archie Williams won the 400-meter run in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the same in which black American athletes led by Jesse Owens, who won four golds, left German dictator Adolf Hitler in a snit and refusing to shake their hands.
Or that Les Williams spent summers of his youth visiting relatives in Southern California, where he became friends with Robinson, later competing against him when Williams attended the College of San Mateo and Robinson starred at Pasadena City College well before going on to break major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
A remarkable life, indeed, and one in which Williams simply refused to take “no” – specifically, “No, because you are black” – for an answer.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Williams knew he would be drafted into the Army. Hearing the Army Air Corps had begun training black pilots, he weighed the risks of flying against those of serving in the infantry, having seen others return from the war with permanent wounds. His future as a performer after the war hinged on surviving it intact.
“I didn’t want to lose my ability to dance,” Williams said. “I’d rather crash and die. Better than losing limbs.”
The Tuskegee Airmen – so named because many pilots already had been in the Civil Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee University in Alabama – were under the command of white officers, virtually all of whom remained steeped in the racism against blacks, using the N-word at every turn, Williams said.
“It was disgusting,” he said. “Prejudice is a nasty thing – a terrible thing.”
He passed his solo flight even though the officer who tested him flunked most other black pilots. Williams was confident to the point of being cocky, a smart and a natural leader. He was promoted to sergeant and ultimately to captain. But rank didn’t matter. Skin color did.
It irked him that black officers were being trained by white officers who had less flying time, and that the white officers had a club with a fully stocked bar at Freeman Field base in Indiana. In fact, black officers also were prohibited from using the post exchange and theater, the latter of which was open to German POWs held at the base. Yes, German prisoners of war.
“The white pilots would not let us use their nightclub,” Williams said. “When you get tired, a little drink wouldn’t hurt. Helps you relax. But they prohibited black fliers from coming in. We just wanted a little merriment. We decided to bring it to a conflict.”
In what became known as the Freeman Field Mutiny in the spring of 1945, black officers went in groups of three and tried to get into the club. They were denied drinks. One of them, Lt. Roger Terry, brushed up against a white major, who proceeded to file charges against Terry and two others.
So 300 black officers decided to protest, with about 100 of them marching to the officers club only to find it closed. The next day, 50 single officers and 50 married officers were randomly arrested for their actions. Williams wasn’t one of them, even though he participated.
Terry, however, wasn’t so fortunate. While acquitted of disobeying an order, he was convicted of “jostling” the white officer, fined $150, busted down in rank and dishonorably discharged. In 1995, Terry received a full pardon, had his rank restored and the $150 fine refunded.
While the Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots saw extensive duty and performed extremely well, the B-25s that Williams and his fellow airmen flew didn’t see combat. The war ended before they could get into it. Part of him felt relieved. The other half?
“It bothered me,” he said. “We were right at the brink.”
He left the service after the war and tried to find work as a commercial airline pilot.
“One of them (airline executives) told him to pick up the broom in the corner,” his daughter Penny Williams said. “That that was the only job he’d ever get in aviation.”
Consequently, he moved on in life, attending Stanford for his undergraduate degree while starting up his dance studio. For years, he rarely spoke about his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman.
“People didn’t believe he was a pilot, so he stopped talking about it,” said daughter Penny, who in 2010 co-wrote with him a book entitled “Victory: Tales of A Tuskegee Airman” (published in 2011 and available on Amazon.com).
Eventually, others did talk about it. Williams and other surviving Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush in 2007. And Williams attended Obama’s first inauguration two years later.
Among Williams’ dance students in San Mateo was a young boy named Lynn Swann, who went on to become a star receiver at USC, win four Super Bowls with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and now is a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
When San Mateo’s Serra High inducted Swann into its hall of fame in 2012, he used his time to honor Williams, who attended the ceremony.
“Les Williams is the true hometown hero here today,” Swann told the crowd that day.
The Williams family, including Elsie – his wife of 70 years – and daughters Paula and Penny, all moved to Stanislaus County’s West Side last year. It’s been a difficult adjustment well into his 90s, with new surroundings and none of his old friends around.
Indeed, Patterson has a relatively new neighbor, and one whose story is why black history is such an important part of American history and needs to be told.