Perhaps the defining day in Quentin P. Smith's life was the day the young Tuskegee airman defied a direct order and helped to integrate the U.S. military. Now 93, he has had a close-up view of U.S. history from desegregation to the Barack Obama presidency.
During World War II, Smith was stationed stateside as a pilot, flying out of Moton Field from the base near Tuskegee, Ala. Then, in early 1945, at a small base in Seymour, Ind., he took a stand against segregation along with other African-American officers. The incident is known by the name of their airstrip, Freeman Field.
Smith-then a first lieutenant-tells his story: The officers were banned after 5 p.m. daily from the officer's club, which the townspeople also used during the evening hours. The insulting directive kept young, energetic officers away from their primary sources of entertainment: the bar, the pool, and the tennis courts. Rather than accepting it, the officers determined to challenge it, sending different small groups of officers each time to walk up and force the officer in charge to turn them away over and over. This soon brought them into a confrontation with the commanding officer.
Eventually, a superior officer called them in one by one to have them sign a statement that they had read and understood the base's regulation. When Smith's turn came, he declined to sign. Told that it could be specified that signing was not agreement, he declined again. Then came a direct order to sign, along with a reminder of the consequences of refusing a direct order under Article 64-severe in penalty and technically punishable by death.
"He sucked the wind out of me," Smith recalls. "All I could do was shake my head."
The officer repeated the command, and Smith managed to squeak out a smothered, high-pitched "no." Confined in his quarters, he expected to be shipped to Fort Leavenworth for a long imprisonment. Instead, he was released.
He later found out that he was one of 101 officers who took the same stand one by one. More than 400 officers yielded to the order, pooled their money, and contacted the NAACP. Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer and eventual Supreme Court justice, went to work on the case. Marshall's influence-or perhaps the sheer impracticality of locking up 101 officers of the U.S. Army Air Corps-got political attention in Washington, D.C., and President Harry Truman ordered the officers to be released.
Smith never made it to the fighting, and he left the military after World War II ended. Six decades later, in 2007, he and other Tuskegee airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal. During those decades he fought battles to give Indiana kids a good education, serving as a principal at elementary, middle, and high schools. He particularly enjoyed starting in 1958 Banneker Elementary, still reserved for academically achieving students: "I got a chance to build one from the bottom up, books, teachers, everything."
Smith also participated in Gary's local politics, serving as president of the common council and Gary International Airport, despite being a rare Republican in Democrat-dominated Gary. He remains in the GOP but found President Barack Obama's rise inspiring: "I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime."
In retirement, Smith has been involved in a Youth in Aviation program with the Chicago chapter of Tuskegee Airmen. Every Saturday, 30-40 kids arrive for a day of simulators and videos about all things aerial, then get a ride in one of the chapter's three airplanes: "We've been doing it for 35 years."
Smith's house in Gary is cluttered with the books he loves to accumulate, from politics and history to cooking, still his hobby. Now he's looking forward to seeing the new movie about the Tuskegee airmen, Red Tails.