Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Access to Flying

BOND: Now, I guess this attracts you to the idea "I can do this, I can do this" -- the comic books, the experience of seeing these flyers, going up yourself, the excitement attached to it.

THEUS: That's right.

BOND: Was the military the most immediate option for you to get yourself into this world?

THEUS: It was, it was. I looked forward to the day that I could join the military, the Air Force, if you will, the Air Corps at that time -- join and learn to fly military aircraft. But when I first started to get this urge, I was very, very young, so I had to wait for time to pass.

BOND: Sure.

THEUS: And, of course, we're getting now into the '30s, 1930s and so forth, so I had to go ahead and complete high school. I had thought very much about going off to college because we didn't have any incentive or, shall we say, any examples. I don't know if there were any individuals from this small community who even thought in terms of going to college. So after I graduated – I was very fortunate. I skipped several grades in elementary school, and so I was one of the younger people through high school – but I hadn't thought too much about college. I started to work doing some unskilled labor jobs, then along came the war, along came the war. Along came the war, and I joined the hordes of people who were -- worked on projects that were related to the war. In fact, I recall specifically I went to work on a construction gang making about three times the money that I was making working in the small automobile dealership before this came along. And so there was just no thought at that time of going on to college.

Then when the opportunity came, the program was announced that the Army Air Corps would accept African Americans for pilot training. I hit a little bit on that last evening. It took a lot to get this, though, to get this done. But it was not an easy thing, and I may have brushed over it too rapidly last evening because we had to have -- first of all, we had to have a [law]suit by a fellow by the name of Yancy Williams, who literally sued the War Department to open up flying to African Americans. We had Mrs. Roosevelt, as I pointed out, after she came down to Tuskegee and flew with an African American who had literally taught himself to fly. And she, upon completion of the flight, vowed that she would help us in getting what we wanted. We had Dale White and Chauncey Spencer who flew a rickety old aircraft and there was -- they had a lot of problems getting that thing from Chicago to Washington, D. C. But it paid off because Senator Truman -- then-Senator Truman -- came out and looked at this airplane and looked at these fellows, and he made a commitment on the spot. He said, "If you had guts enough to fly that thing all the way from Chicago to Washington, D. C., I have guts enough to help you get what you're trying to -- what you're asking for, and that is an opportunity to fly." In the meantime, there was a thrust on the part of the African-American news media that led those that were in the legislature were pushing. So, I don't see that the War Department had any choice but to open up flying to African Americans.

But they decided they would do this on a very limited scale -- "We'll train just enough pilots and crew members to staff one squadron." That was supposed to be the 99th. So they said, "Well, we'll build an airport for them." And it is said that they also went on to say that "Since we know" – quote, "know" – "We know that African-Americans can't fly, we know that they don't have the brain capacity, the ability to fly military aircraft. So we'll give them a few airplanes. We'll build them a base, they'll kill a few of themselves, maybe as collateral damage a few families might suffer on the outside, but that's about it. But we'll prove once and for all the wisdom of keeping blacks out of the cockpits of military aircraft."