93-year-old veteran one of first African American military aviators
By Julie Oatfield /// Staff Writer
Ninety-three-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Alex Jefferson will give a talk at Agnes Flanagan Chapel at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 5.
Jefferson was a member of a group of fighter pilots during World War II called the Tuskegee Airmen, also known as the Red Tails. The airmen were the first African American military aviators to fight in WWII. Jefferson will speak about his experiences as an Air Force officer, his time as a prisoner of war in Germany and of his post-war career as an educator in the Detroit Public School System. The event will include a reception and book-signing of Jefferson’s memoir, “Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW.”
In addition to the information Jefferson will share with students next week, Lewis & Clark’s Department of Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement has teamed up with Associate Vice President & Director of Human Resources Isaac Dixon to coordinate promotion, logistics and provide background information on the speaker’s life.
“The battle [the Tuskegee airmen] fought was not only against America’s enemies overseas; they also fought against their own nation’s policies of segregation and exclusion,” Dixon said. “Many Americans do not realize that the orders desegregating the United States Armed Forces were not signed until 1946, a full year after the Second World War’s conclusion. For many veterans of color this impacted which awards they were eligible to receive, which benefits they could access and so much more. [Jefferson’s talk] will be the picture of what life was like then for a young man of color that Lt. Col. Jefferson will vividly paint by virtue of his experiences.”
Though his stories are sure to appeal to just about anyone on campus, the History department is especially looking forward to Jefferson’s visit.
Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in History Khalil Johnson, who specializes in African American and Native American history, said, “LC is fortunate to have the presence of a true pioneer.”
Johnson mentioned that after the 1930s, mass migration from the South led to nearly 2,000,000 African Americans voting in particularly influential swing states.
“On January 16, 1941, in response to African American political pressure, the Army announced that it would establish an airfield and pilot-training facility at Tuskegee, Alabama, for black aviators. The creation of a corps of black airmen, however, amounted to ‘separate but equal’ within in the U.S. military,” Johnson said.
In the wake of WWII, instead of a hero’s welcome, Jefferson and his comrades faced discrimination, and even violence. Herman Barnett, a Tuskegee airman and surgeon, “was pistol whipped after being pulled over by a police officer who accused the black surgeon of stealing his own class ring,” Johnson said.
Jefferson will deliver a personal narrative weaving together issues of history, politics and social justice.
“Lt. Col. Alex Jefferson’s is a living embodiment of the courage, grace and persistence that presaged and inspired the mass protests that would follow in the iconic movements of the 1950s and 1960s,” said Johnson.