My first tap-dance teacher was a Tuskegee Airman. Yep, I’m that old.
Actually, he was forty years older than me and my twin sister when we enrolled in Les Williams’ dance studio in San Mateo, CA in 1964.
He was the first “Black” American to achieve the rank of Captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps, trusted with training the famous Red Tail bomber pilots.
In his autobiography, he said that he decided to volunteer for the Air Corps to be a pilot because he did not want to risk debilitating injuries in the infantry. He preferred the death from a plane crash to the risk of losing his ability to dance.
I reconnected with Mr. Williams just as he finished his autobiography: Victory – Tales of a Tuskegee Airman. I purchased several copies, including those autographed for my school Library. I give a presentation about him to my students and hope that a few of them will join my afterschool Tap Club.
Williams taught dance well into his 50s, then utilized the law degree he earned at Stanford University after the war, before becoming a Realtor in his 80s. He enjoyed speaking at schools and civic events, revealing his story that was a surprise to many who had known him for decades as a sweet, humble man of many talents.
Williams passed away on April 1, 2015, at the age of 95.
I just finished watching the 2006 movie, Flyboys. This film, based on the true story of American pilots who fought for the French at the beginning of WWI, revealed that there was a black man that preceded Les Williams as a World War air hero.
Eugene Bullard, a native of Columbus, Ga., was one of 10 children of a former slave. While still a teenager, he left his hometown and stowed away on a ship bound for Scotland. He moved to London, where he became a successful boxer. After enlisting in the French Foreign Legion and sustaining injuries in the battle of Verdun, Bullard challenged someone who predicted that he would not be allowed into the flying corps.
According to the U.S. Air Force website, in November 1916:
“he talked his way into pilot training and earned his pilot’s license to become the first African-American aviator… He was still living in Paris at the outbreak of World War II and worked with French Resistance forces to spy on German troops who would patronize his bar. Considered too old to join the French army, Bullard found a way to escape from occupied France and returned to the U.S. aboard a Red Cross ship in 1940… When he returned to the U.S., he was never recognized as a war hero and died in relative obscurity and poverty in Flushing, Queens, New York in 1961. While he never realized his dream of becoming a pilot in the U.S. military, he was finally recognized posthumously as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force in 1994.”
These stories must be told and remembered. Not because these heroes were black, but because they were Patriots. And, as the French understood even before Americans, “Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge”