Val Archer, Earl Martin and Wilbur Mason didn’t know they were making history in the 1940s.
But the three men who visited Dothan on Sunday now realize that their association with the Tuskegee Airmen was a vital step toward desegregation.
Archer, Martin and Mason, from the Atlanta chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., visited Stringer Street African Methodist Episcopal Church and the downtown mural depicting Sherman Rose, an aviator and instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen, as part of the church’s observance of Black History Month.
The Tuskegee Airmen name is usually associated with the 996 black pilots who graduated from flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama from 1941 through 1946. But it takes more than pilots to keep a squadron flying.
Archer said he was 16 when he joined the Redtails, as the 332nd Fighter Group was called in 1945, at Lockbourne Air Base, Ohio. He said the military helped him become a man by establishing goals and instilling in him some values he didn’t grow up with on the south side of Chicago.
“So I did come from nowhere, like digging out of a hole to get up and see what the rest of the folks were doing,” Archer said. “It was a good career. I am proud of that legacy with the Tuskegee Airmen, and I spent 22 years on active duty.”
Archer said Martin and Mason were two of the people he looked up to during those days, when segregation was a way of life in this country.
“There are separate Americas,” Archer said. “The America we grew up in was very different. When we speak to young people today, they have no idea of the America that we got involved in.
“Even after the desegregation order by the president (Harry Truman in 1948), it took about a good 20 years to implement that,” Archer said. “That was legal, that was the law of the country, but it was totally ignored by the larger population in the service, by the military, as well as in civilian life.”
Up until the time of the Vietnam War, Archer said blacks were “catching hell” in terms of promotions, assignments and opportunities.
“But today, I think we can be very proud of the cadre of young people who came on board as Equal Employment Opportunity officers, and they did an incredible job in getting us directed to the place where we are right now, where the armed forces are leaders in diversity in the United States,” Archer said.
“Unfortunately, they don’t get the recognition for that either, but in time, hopefully, that will occur as well.”
Having gone through the slow and gradual transition to desegregation, Archer said racism hasn’t disappeared.
“The racism today is beginning to rear its head, and it’s much more sophisticated and much more subtle, and I think we do have to be on guard against that. If we don’t, then we will have a repeat of the 1940s again.
“In a way, I’m sorry that we’re getting older because unless we can develop a cadre of people to follow us, another generation, much will be lost,” Archer said. “We hope that doesn’t happen. It would be bad for the country.”
Martin started out on a ground crew at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. He faced barriers to promotion for most of his career, even though he had 13 favorable efficiency reports.
“If someone knew the commander, he may get promoted,” Martin said. “In my case, I remained at a tech sergeant even though I flew for four different generals, retired with over 4,105 flying hours.”
It was only after intervention by the NAACP in 1963 that Martin said he became the only man, white or black, who was promoted to master sergeant in 1964.
Mason wasn’t in the military. He grew up in Tuskegee, graduated high school there and had a job in supply at the Tuskegee base until it closed in 1947.
“The supply personnel would come to supply to get whatever they need, then go back out on the line and the mechanic would put it on the planes and whatnot,” Mason said. “So our contact with the military was really limited.”
But Archer said Mason is a very modest guy. “Those planes would not have gotten off the ground without the supplies,” Archer said.
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