Black Life Texas
Tuskegee Airmen: Soaring to Excellence
In the year 1925, the United States War Department issued a statement that Black Americans were incapable of handling anything dealing with advanced technology. The report further stated that, “Negroes could not control themselves in face of danger, they were physically unfit for combat duty, and they were inferior in intelligence and resourcefulness to whites.” One of the primary reasons for issuing this report was to keep Blacks from becoming pilots. This report generated a concentrated attack from the NAACP, the Urban League, and other Black leaders. They insisted that Blacks were just as capable as whites in battlefield situations and pointed to the overwhelming success of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War and the success of the Buffalo Soldiers in many battles including the Teddy Roosevelt-led Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War. They also pointed to the success of the 369th Infantry Regiment better known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” during World War I.
Negroes could not control themselves in face of danger, they were physically unfit for combat duty, and . . .
Due to the insistence of Black leaders the United States Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Act in 1939, which gave six African American schools the opportunity to start programs in aviation if they did not already have one. Tuskegee Institution did have such a program. In January 1941, the War Department formed the all-Black 99th Pursuit Squadron to be trained at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. Initially Black leaders and especially Black newspapers opposed the segregated base for the training, but despite their opposition President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the opening of the segregated facility in Tuskegee.
The first class of trained pilots formed the 99th Pursuit Squadron and graduated in March 1942. They flew their first mission on June 2, 1943, an aerial attack on an Italian target in the Mediterranean Sea. Later that year, the army activated three more trained squadrons with the 99th to form the 332nd Fighter Group. This group not only carried out attacks on enemy targets but also served as escorts to bomber airplanes. On one particular escort mission to Berlin, Germany, they shot down three German ME Jet fighter planes, the first jets operated in the war, and damaged five additional planes. It was a feat never matched by any other escort planes.
They were so good at protecting the bombers the story goes that one bomber group flying in from a mission, communicated with another group going out on a mission and asked who was their escort? The group replied, “the Red Tails” (the nickname given to 332nd fighters) and the response was “we’ll see all of you back here this evening.” The fact being that the bomber group returning to the base had been protected by the Red Tails, and it had been so superior that they knew their fellow pilots would all return to the base unharmed. These Black pilots who had been deemed mentally incapable to fly fighter planes, were sought out by white pilots flying bomber missions as their protectors. Throughout their time involved in protecting the bombers, they had the lowest loss record during the entire war.
Extremely satisfied with the performance of the 332nd fighters, the War Department began to train Black pilots to manage bombers. In January 1944, they took the inactivated white 477th Bombardment Group, activated it and assigned it to the Black pilots to operate. Within four months, they were ready to fly missions but never did get the opportunity to do so. Instead, they were stationed at Freeman Field in Indiana for the duration of the war.
Once again, Black soldiers proved that all the negative assessments of their ability to fight were wrong, be it on the ground or in the air. A total of 992 pilots were trained and flew 179 bomber escort missions and lost bombers on only seven of those missions and a total of twenty-seven bombers overall compared to an average of forty-six from white escort planes. They flew 15,533 sorties and destroyed 261 enemy aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen lost only sixty-six pilots and thirty-two were taken prisoner of war during the entire World War II. Daniel Chappie James, the nation’s first Black four-star general was one of the pilots. The commander of the 332nd was Benjamin O. Davis, who graduated with the first class of pilots, and went on to become their commander. He eventually received the rank of brigadier general, the first Black American to do so.
Their legacy lives on with the fifty-six Tuskegee Airmen chapters throughout the United States and one in the Virgin Islands. Rick Sinkfield a member of the San Antonio Chapter has written regarding the 992 pilots, “While fighting fascism overseas, the Tuskegee Airmen proved their commitment and worth to America in time of war. In doing so, they planted the seed for the Civil Rights Movement from which all Americans have benefited.” Their work and sacrifice played a significant role in President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 that integrated the United States military. In March 2007, President George. W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the three hundred Airmen at a ceremony in the White House. Finally, former President Barack Obama wrote that his career in public service was made possible by the path of heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trailblazer.
These great men soared to excellence and proved that the 1925 War Department statement was an enormous misreading of the outstanding ability of Black Americans in all realms of the military, and in any other field they choose to pursue as careers.
Black Life Texas
Black Musical Legacy: Black Music Month
Black Music Month, created in 1979, honors the history and rich American Black music traditions that gave birth to different music styles, including every type of music you can think of. Blues, country, classical, jazz, Afro, Latin, R&B, gospel, rock, pop, Reggae, and so on. Music is integral in our lives! Without music, you would not know how to feel when you watch a movie scene. Music helps you to get your mood right before heading to work, and music will keep you moving a little faster in the gym.
Today, as our Black race is being besieged with assaults on the many contributions the African American community has made to the country’s history (outside of music), one thing is for sure, they can NEVER take our music away. Everyone knows “the flavor” we put on things. George Clinton of the Parliament Funkadelic expressed that flavor well with his P-Funk mythology that weaved into his music and touring bands. Along with the Civil Rights Movement, Black performers in the 1960s and 1970s were laying the foundation of music genius for generations to come.
It has been encouraging to see artists like Anita Baker, Prince and Michael Jackson win the rights to own their music. The record companies often attempted to out-slick Black artists from owning their music. When Warner Bros. told Prince that he didn’t own his God-given name, Prince wrote SLAVE on his face in defiance.
Black Music Month also begins on a somber note. Music fans worldwide are saddened by the transition of Anna Mae Bullock, known by the stage name Tina Turner. Tina died on May 24, 2023. The frenetic dancer had a raw and raspy voice, which captured the hearts of her fans. Although an excellent performer, the love of her fans became even more apparent due to her withstanding the abuse at the hand of her former husband, Ike Turner.
Tina, the lead singer with the Ike and Tina Turner Review, had their biggest hit with Proud Mary, which won a Grammy Award in 1971. But Tina went beyond her accomplishments with Ike when she started her solo career. Her album Private Dancer became an incredible commercial success. At the 1985 Grammy Awards, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” won three awards for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and “Better Be Good To Me” won for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.
Rap music is the Black community’s newest music contribution and it too has made its way into the mainstream with worldwide acceptance. To honor rap artists accomplishments, the Grammy Awards celebrated 50 years of Rap Music. New technology has also drastically changed the music business and has both hurt and helped artists. Many are now able to achieve vast amounts of wealth faster and often cut out the traditional record company. Ushered in by Apple Music and streaming services, along with social media, the public now has easier access to artists and their music.
Look at the accomplishments of the individuals who started in music and morphed into mainstream businesses. You have BEATS by Dr. Dre, TIDAL by Jay-Z, and Rhianna has done very well with her Fenty line. There are many more who have used the music to launch businesses, such as Ice Cube, Puffy, 50 Cent, Russel Simmons, and many others who all became household names.
This year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame which will be aired on Nov. 3, 2023 is also more inclusive than ever before. The 1960’s soulful group, The Spinners, was included in the performer category, along with Missy Elliott, who became the first female hip-hop artist and has been called “a true pathbreaker in a male-dominated genre.” The Musical Influence Award is bestowed on DJ Kool Herc, who is credited with contributing to the development of hip hop music in the Bronx, New York City, in the 1970s. The Musical Excellence Award was given to Chaka Khan, who is described as “one of the mightiest and most influential voices in music,” who paved the way for women like Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe.
And the “Soul Train’s” Don Cornelius will posthumously be awarded the Ahmet Ertegun Award at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which is given to a person who had a major influence on the creative development and growth of rock & roll music.
To all Black music artists and their supporting cast and crew, we honor you! Not just the performers, but anyone who plays a role in allowing the community at large to hear this incredible music, we applaud you also!
The staff of Black Life Texas urges readers to do something this month. Attend a performance by a Black artist, buy or download your favorite song. Just do something!
Black Life Texas
Day of Memorials in Washington, D.C.
By Don Mathis
Austin–Bergstrom International Airport was alive April 21 with an assortment of 40 military veterans gathered for a flight to Washington, D.C. Austin Honor Flight 81 was assigned to tour our nation’s war memorials the next day.
Old Korea veterans from the Army and Air Force rolled about in wheelchairs. Wise-cracking Cold War Marines mingled with spry veterans from the Vietnam era. I was one of the last Americans to be drafted in May 1971, so was eligible to attend.
After the TSA checkpoint, it was more of the old Army axiom, “Hurry up and wait.” Then an Honor Guard troop arrived and the Austin Police Department Pipe and Drum Corps got in formation.
Aides with wheelchairs led our company of veterans down the concourse to the beat of drums, whistles of flutes, and the haunting sounds of bagpipes. Civilian travelers clapped and cheered. Mothers wiped tears from their eyes and young men saluted. A hundred passengers stopped on their way to their gates and filmed our parade.
Speeches and a blessing followed an acapella rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Nyle Maxwell owns several car dealerships in Texas and his family sponsored this Honor Flight. Transportation, lodging, meals, and personal guides were given to those who served. *
The ramp to the aircraft was festooned with red, white, and blue. A water cannon saluted our takeoff. The reception at Reagan National Airport was even more grand. A thousand tourists and businessmen applauded our arrival. This is the welcome that servicemen from Korea and Vietnam never received when they returned home.
The band of veterans, uniformed in matching shirts and caps with service insignia, boarded the bus for a short trip to a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, to prepare for a banquet. Guardians and guests sat by the side of dozens of veterans as they were feted for their service.
A poem was offered:
Children become soldiers; there are a thousand reasons why.
Some will die in combat, others will survive.
I won’t forget their sacrifices, their families who had to wait,
and their careers they put on hold. So, if it’s not too late,
I want to thank the veteran. What he had to do, he did.
Soldiers grow old too fast. It seems yesterday he was just a kid.
We can flower and flag the cemetery. We can shed a little tear.
We can offer our thanks to the living veterans who are still here.
Speeches and blessings were rendered. But one tribute was unique – The Missing Man Table:
The table is round, to show everlasting concern for our missing men. The white linen symbolizes the purity of their motives when answering the call to serve. A single rose reminds us of the love of their friends and family. A ribbon symbolizes our continued determination to account for our missing. A slice of lemon reminds us of their bitter fate; captured and missing in a foreign land. A pinch of salt symbolizes the tears of our missing and their families who long for answers after decades of uncertainty. The lighted candle reflects our hope for their return, alive or dead. The goblet is inverted, symbolizing their inability to share a toast. The chair is empty, the seat that remains unclaimed at the table.
The next day, a cigar-chomping character, dressed up like a five-star general, greeted the veterans at the WWII Memorial. Inside the columns, an Honor Guard composed of service men and women from the five branches of military showed respect for the symbols of our country.
The Star-Spangled Banner was sung by one of the Honor Flight guardians. It was impeccable – until she stumbled. Truth be told, I thought it was a recording until her miss; I thanked her for keeping it real. Some funerals at the National Cemetery in San Antonio feature a recording of “Taps,” played by an electronic bugle. The rendition of “Taps” at the World War II Memorial was real.
As if on cue, the fountains at the Rainbow Pool sprang to life amid our salute to the Greatest Generation. During WWII, my dad was a sailor in the Pacific; my step-father was a GI in Germany. I carried a dozen American banners in my backpack – and I left a flag for my fathers.
Each veteran was assigned a guardian to explain the sites and keep us punctual for the next tour bus departure. Our itinerary was tight, but I convinced my guardian to go AWOL with me to see some war memorials on our own.
The names of the men and women from the District of Columbia who gave their lives in the First World War are inscribed in an open-air Doric structure near the Reflecting Pool. My guardian’s grandfather served in the Great War for Civilization. I left a flag for his service.
One summer morning 60 years ago, my grandmother rustled me from sleep. “Son, wake up,” she said. “We’re at war.” Instantly, all the images of the war movies I was raised on flashed through my head. So, I left a flag for those early causalities at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
A nearby statue depicts three American servicemen and the things they carried. An empty wheelchair sat next to the sculpture the day of our visit – a reminder that some veterans came home in a wheelchair; some didn’t come home at all.
One of my Honor Flight friends recalled his companion who died in Vietnam – and made a rubbing of his name. We looked at a cell phone image of James Wells and gave him a silent salute.
Down the hill from the United States Institute of Peace, a new memorial is going up. There was a groundbreaking on Constitution Avenue last year for the Desert Shield and Desert Storm Memorial. Organizers hope to have a dedication next year. And across 23rd Street, the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation is planning an edifice to remember those who have served in that struggle.
2023 is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. In April, D.C.’s streets were festooned with the flag of South Korea to welcome President Yoon of the Republic of Korea. He and President Biden left a wreath at the Korean War Veterans Memorial a few days after my visit.
1953 is the first memory I have of my dad when he returned to his two-year-old son after the war in Korea. I left another flag for my father.
Arlington National Cemetery is a place of solemn beauty, with headstone after headstone in a row. It is a peaceful place befitting those who have seen the horrors of war. The sound of a flag ruffling in the breeze causes the heart to beat a little faster.
The guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier scuffs his shoe to acknowledge the audience. The Changing of the Guard is a moving ceremony. The presentation of a wreath from Austin Honor Flight 81 was equally overwhelming.
Although the Potomac River is at the bottom of the hill, a ship’s mast rises above the horizon. The USS Maine Memorial overlooks the graves of 230 service members who died when the battleship exploded off the coast of Havana in 1898. The sinking of this vessel was the impetus for the Spanish-American War. But it was that war that joined America again to be United States.
A riff between North and South had existed since the Civil War. And it was the victories of Admiral Dewey’s Navy and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders that unified the nation. The Arlington Memorial Bridge connects the Lincoln Memorial on the north side of the Potomac River with the Robert E. Lee Memorial in the heart of the National Cemetery.
This country is experiencing a division like nothing since the Vietnam War. We need that unity once again.
While at Arlington, I left a flag for an Army major and a Navy captain. The service I receive at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans’ Hospital in San Antonio merited a memorial for its namesake. And the father of my best friend is buried nearby; so I left a Salute to Captain Arellano.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the flag rising over Iwo Jima was the model for the US Marine Corps War Memorial. The base of the monument lists the names and dates of every principal Marine Corps engagement since their founding in 1775. The list of wars and battles is long – more than 40 engagements – and there is plenty of room for future wars.
The guide brought to our attention an optical illusion. The flag at the Marine Corps Memorial seems to rise as you drive around it. There is no such thing as an ex-Marine. I left a flag for those who served.
The Air Force Memorial honors the service and heritage of the men and women of military aviation. It’s located on federal property adjacent to a new section of Arlington National Cemetery. Three memorial spires appear to be soaring; its array of stainless-steel arcs against the sky evokes the image of contrails of Air Force jets.
My service in the Air Force Reserve brought me to Washington, D.C. several times in the 1970s. I left a flag for my mother’s brothers. Staff Sargent Hollis Walker and Lt. Col. Dick Walker both served in the Air Force in WWII and Korea. Salute to my uncles!
The Air Force Memorial overlooks the Pentagon. A 9/11 Memorial there commemorates the family members and friends who died in the 2001 terrorist attack. From our vantage point on the river levee, we could see the different colored stone used to repair the damage from American Airlines Flight 77. A nation is held together by its history, by a collective understanding of what has come before us, and what it has meant. This is how we are united together.
A short stop for sailors only was planned for the United States Navy Memorial. The fountain there is filled annually with waters from the seven seas. Again, my guardian helped me go AWOL to leave a flag for my father’s service in the Pacific during WWII.
Wars are fought for a variety of reasons. It may pitch hunter-gatherers against farmers or it may be the agrarian vs. the industrial age. Wars may be fought for land or liberty, resources or racism, ethics or to end ethnic violence.
But if you ask the combatant why he’s fighting, he may tell you it’s for his fellow man. On Memorial Day, we remember those who have fought and fallen. We can flower and flag the cemetery or we can give a silent salute. But we remember. And in Washington, D.C., there are many memorials to aid our memory.
*Honor Flight is a national organization that transports American veterans to Washington, D.C., to celebrate them for their service and sacrifices. If you know of a veteran from 1975 or earlier, ask them to consider looking into the Honor Flight Network – Honoring American Veterans.
Black Life Texas
The Truth about Jordan Neely
By Caleb Alexander
America killed Jordan Neely. There, I said the quiet part out loud. And not only is America responsible for Jordan Neely’s death, but so is Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Rand Paul, Ron Desantis, Gregg Abbott, and everyone else who has led the assault on Critical Race Theory or tried to suppress the truth about America’s ugly past. America has never dealt with its ugly racist history; it has instead chosen to go the way of the ostrich and stick its head in the sand. History tells us how American plantation owners would take the drums away from their slaves and bury them to keep the slaves from communicating from plantation to plantation. The drums were a means of communication, a way to keep traditions and cultural connections alive. America has chosen to bury its own drums. It wants to bury its connection to its historical and cultural ties to the abhorrently brutal practice of race-based chattel slavery.
Jordan Neely died because of the color of his skin. After Emancipation, to be clothed in Black skin not only had no value to the white power structure, it became a symbol of sin. Sin for losing a war they based their entire being on, a war about whiteness, what it was, what it meant, and what losing meant for their place in the world and society. Black skin served as a reminder of the inhumane of their humanness. The idea was that they were no better and that they would have to live in a world where they would have to survive and compete on merit and not some fallacy of a God-ordained race-based hierarchy.
Jordan Neely died because a mediocre white power structure can’t let go. The subjugation and policing of Blackness is embedded in their genetic code. Social media tells them who they are, what they should have, and where they should be in life, yet they are not there. They want to return to a bygone era where whiteness gave them access to women, to status, to privilege not earned. Whiteness made them supervisors; they were the unskilled and unqualified brutes overseeing the labor of the skilled. And now Jordan is dead. And so is Ahmaud Arbery.
We live in a country where the criminalization of Black skin means to simply exist in a public space is a death sentence. Black skin means that you cannot be a 12-year-old child playing with a water gun in a public park, you cannot wear a jogging hoody and go the local store and buy a pack of Skittles, you cannot bird watch in Central Park, you can’t be a child doing a scientific study on trees, or go jogging in Georgia, play your music at a gas station in Florida. You just can’t. We are born with a death sentence covering us, a birth cloth that white folks see as a hunting license.
Jordan Neely was the perfect example of intersectionality at its worst. He lived in a space where he didn’t exist in society because of his mental illness, but due to his Black skin, he loomed larger than life. In the words of Hillary Clinton, he was a super-predator. To exist alternately at the nexus of the forgotten and the dangerous would cause any human being to cry out, “I’m hungry, and I’m tired of living!” To be Black in America is to be perpetually exhausted. To have your mother murdered, hacked to pieces, stuffed in a suitcase, and then discarded on the side of the highway would traumatize anyone. New York failed Jordan. The people around him failed him. Our mental health system failed him. And America’s legacy finished him off.
The truth about Jordan Neely is that he should be alive today. He should be alive and in a hospital receiving treatment. The truth is that Jordan Neely’s mother should be alive today because society also failed her. America’s trauma on the Black family, how we’re viewed and treated should all be on trial today. The reality is the tragedy of Jordan Neely happened in 1619. Until America reconciles with its racial past, the tragedy of Jordan Neely will continue to be perpetuated for generations.
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