Tuskegee Airmen statue, Coleman A. Young International Airport in Detroit | Ken Coleman
On April 5, 1945, members of the U.S. Army 477th Bombardment Group attempted to integrate an all-white officers’ club. At least five Michigan residents took part in the effort.
It was both the final weeks of World War II in Europe and the final week of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life, the ailing president who had guided America through one of its most challenging periods and would die on April 12.
It also was the year that jazz vocalist Billie Holiday recorded a live version of the chilling composition “Strange Fruit.” In later years, the song first recorded by Holiday in 1939, was banned by some concert venues and radio stations across the nation because it told of Blacks being savagely lynched by whites, a subject that made some uncomfortable.
In 1944, the 477th had been stationed at Selfridge Field (now Selfridge Air Force Base) in Macomb County and then moved to Godman Field in Fort Knox, Ky. By early 1945, the 477th was headed to Indiana to prepare for more flight training.
Military regulations stated that any officers’ club was open to any officer, but Freeman Field, near Seymour, Ind., had two officers’ clubs: One was open to “trainees” and the other was open to “supervisors.” Black officers were classified as trainees, and white officers were classified as supervisors.
Lt. Roger “Bill” Terry of Los Angeles and 2nd Lt. Coleman A. Young of Detroit, both members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a pioneer group of Black aviators, came up with a plan to send African-American officers to the white club, three at a time. As the Black officers attempted to enter, they were arrested. Nonetheless, Terry and Young kept sending more officers.
It would come to be called the Freeman Field Mutiny.
“My job was to convince the men to get arrested, and most of them were angry enough to do it,” Young, a former labor union organizer, wrote in his 1994 memoir, “Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Coleman Young.” “We realized that we would need public support if we were going to tangle with the United States Army on its own turf, and so our next step was to quietly alert some of the Black media that there might be an incident.”
In addition to Young, other Michiganders arrested were Howard Storey, Roger Pines, Charles Taylor and Robert O’Neil, according to Michigan Chronicle reporting at the time.
Colonel Robert Selway Jr., the 477th commanding officer, ordered Black officers to sign a statement that they understood his orders regulating segregation of the officers’ clubs.
“This field is a school and for the best results, the teachers and students should not mix,” Selway told the Michigan Chronicle in an interview published in April 1944.
However, 101 officers refused to sign. They were subsequently arrested, shipped off to Godman Field for detainment, charged with insubordination and ordered to face court-martial proceedings. The court-martial charges were quickly dropped against all except three officers and two eventually had their charges dropped. Terry, however, was convicted.
‘We think that it broke the camel’s back …’
Of the 2.5 million African-American men who registered for the World War II draft through Dec. 31, 1945, more than 1 million were inducted into the armed forces.
The same day as the Indiana officers club incident, First Sgt. Jerry Davis, a 36-year-old from Macon, Ga., became the first African American in the U.S. to win the Legion of Merit — the fourth highest U.S. Army decoration. Davis, a member of the 92nd all-Negro and racially segregated infantry division that participated in the Battle of the Arno River in Italy, was wounded while taking rations to a gun crew during a heavy enemy barrage. A two-ounce piece of shrapnel from a German 88mm shell entered his right arm, passed through his body and lodged in his spine. His arm was broken, his spleen and kidney ruptured, and his spine fractured. The ceremony was held at Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta where Davis was a patient.
President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 that officially ended segregation in the Armed Forces in 1948. The directive stated that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”
After a campaign from leading Black organizations such as the NAACP and Black press outlets like the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender and Michigan Chronicle, the Black officers were released on April 25, 1945, but the reprimand was placed on their records. After the incident, Terry was dishonorably discharged and Young was released.
“We think that it broke the camel’s back because they had to recognize the fact that 104 officers were arrested, and that they all defied this order, and the order was said to be illegal,” said Terry during an interview for the National Park Service’s Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton pardoned Terry, who had become a lawyer and worked as an investigator in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. He died at age 87 in 2009.
Young was out of the Army by Dec. 23, 1945, and continued union organizing, principally for National Negro Labor Council and civil rights activism. Beginning in 1985, he led an effort to racially integrate the decade’s old Detroit Golf Club.
Young had a long political career and was elected to the Michigan Constitutional Convention of 1961 to 1962 and joined the Michigan Senate, serving as a Democrat from 1965 to 1973. Later, Young was Detroit mayor, serving from 1974 to 1994. He died at age 79 in 1997.
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