This is an Aug. 16, 2002 interview with Tuskegee Airman James Williams. It was his first ever radio interview at the age of 83.
Welcome to the program, sir.
James Williams: Thank you.
How are you doing today, sir?
James Williams: Doing pretty good.
Good. Now youre in town for the annual convention of the Tuskegee Airmen; and that started Wednesday
James Williams: Thats correct.
First of all, let me just say its a pleasure just to have you on the show. I ran into you at the Black Airline Pilot Convention. Tell me how you got involved with the Tuskegee Airmen?
James Williams: Well I always wanted to fly. And one day, a Ford plane came into the little town I lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico. And we went out on this dirt runway to see the airplane. And after that, I got interested in flying. But the way I got into the Army Air Corps I applied for flight training. And while I was waiting to be accepted, they drafted me. And Id been to college; I had four years of college, pre-med so they sent me down to Camp Pickett, Virginia; they were going to send me to the Medical Administrative Office Candidates School. And while I was there, I found out it was pretty close to the Pentagon (and I had also had some airplane mechanic training, prior to that) so I went into the Pentagon; and I ran into the major who was at the Pentagon Procurement Office, and he was very cooperative. He took my credentials, and he told me, We will transfer you in three weeks. I thought I was going to go to Tuskegee for flight training, but instead, they were preparing for a bummer group, in addition to the fighter group. So what they did, they sent me down to Boca Raton Club for Basic Training which was three months. And then I went to Yale University, in New Haven. And thats where I got my commission for as aviation cadet. They trained 26 black cadets there. And I think of about, close to 15,000 cadets trained at Yale; but 26 of them were black. And, after I got my commission at Yale, they sent me to the Wright Engine School in New Jersey, where they make the engines for the B-25 then I went to Inglewood, California where the airplane was made; at the North American plant, out there. And then they assigned me to a base where there were 25 bummers in Colorado I think I was the only black out there. And quite a few of the blacks who got their commissions at Yale one of them ended up as the president of a college; one guy got a PhD. and an M.D.; and I got an M.D. and a Masters Degree in Surgery; and I think there were about 4 or 5 others of the 26 who got PhDs.
Did you know during that time that time, when you were getting involved in flight training did you know you were making history then?
James Williams: Oh, yeah. At that time, I knew that there were no blacks in the Marine Corps; and the only thing a black did in the Navy he was a mess attendant. And
How do you feel you were received?
James Williams: Well, it was interesting. At Boca Raton, when I got down there, they didnt segregate us until they saw some other blacks then they put the blacks in the rooms together.
So one wasnt a problem; but when they saw more than one thats interesting.
James Williams: Thats right. And when I went to Yale, the only segregation was in housing. I was in the Ws, so the only black in my squadron was me; the rest were whites. I also want to mention that I was one of the 101 that they arrested in 1945 when we refused to sign a statement that we would not go into a white officers club, the tennis courts, and swimming pool. And actually, it occurred April 12, 1945 right when President Roosevelt was dying. He died that day, so they put the news of our arrest on The Pittsburgh Courier, The Kansas City Call, and P.M. which was a newspaper in New York City, did publish the fact.
Avery, youre up and aboard!
Avery: Ah, yes sir Dr. Williams! I would like to know if you retired from the military; and if you did, what was your highest rank?
James Williams: Well, my highest rank was First Lieutenant; but what I did, I left the military in 1946 to go back and finish by pre-med in fact, while I was in the military, I went to Ohio State University at night, to take physics; so I could complete my pre-med requirements. So I got a degree in 1946, went into medical school in 1947; finished med school in 1951, and then I got a Masters Degree in Surgery from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
Avery: Thats very, very successful. I wish my generation and beyond could do what you did make some sacrifices and put their noses to the grindstone, and make everybody proud of em; you know what Im sayin? Because Im a Navy veteran (I was in the Persian Gulf War), and I try to do what I can to put my best foot forward. And are you here for the Black Pilots Convention?
James Williams: For the Tuskegee Airmens Convention, too. Let me just mention this: I was one of 101 black officers arrested. And this was April 12th of 1945; they charged us with the 69th article of war which is treason during wartime. Actually, what we did helped to get Colonel Davis back to command the group the composite group here in the states. And also helped integrate the Air Force and the rest of the Armed Forces.
James Williams: I mean the Navy, when I was in, the only thing they [blacks] did, was mess attendants; there were no blacks in the Marine Corps; and the only place where they were training black aviators was down at Tuskegee to fly.
Which is where, at that airfield, you attended a ceremony where Congress (around four years ago) dedicated it as a national landmark how was that ceremony?
James Williams: Well, it was very good. We were a bit delayed getting down to Tuskegee, so part of the program we missed. I enjoyed the entire ceremony.
Tell me I know you met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; he was actually a patient of yours I know you established the first black medical clinic in Chicago. And he was in Chicago at the time. Tell me about Reverend Martin Luther King.
James Williams: Yes well I met Andy Young; Jesse Jackson, all of his associates at the time. And so I know most of them and I also know that the FBI had no desire to ever like Martin Luther King. While he was in Chicago, apparently, they had eight or nine agents following him, all the time.
And he knew it?
James Williams: Well, we knew in fact, my phone was tapped so we knew the FBI was on the case
And was he very personable? What was your relationship with him, and how long did you know him?
James Williams: I knew him and at the time, I was the President of the Cook County Physicians Association, which is a branch of the National Medical Association, in Chicago. So I talked to Dr. King, and he agreed to come back, and give a talk to the group. His attorney was our attorney, so we had good relationships.
Good, good! I understand that this is your first radio interview
James Williams: Thats right.
What, you just dont like the radio?
James Williams: Well, this is the first time I was asked to be on the radio.
Wow wow. And how old are you now, sir may I ask?
James Williams: How old am I?
James Williams: 83 years old.
Wow. Last call Lily, youre up and aboard!
Lily: Well hello, Dr. Williams!
James Williams: Fine, and how are you?
Lily: Its a pleasure to talk to a piece of living history! And Im just amazed about what type of rigorous program of study you went through med school, and all that you went through and also learned how to fly I mean, you are a real inspiration to all those who are alive today. Im a senior citizen, and this is the first time Ive had a chance to talk to a legend Ive seen some of them in New York Chairman Percy Sutton and Dr. Oscar Brown Ive heard them and seen them speak. But to talk to one directly, is really something. And, I take my hat off to you; I heard you mentioned some of the history of our race; I heard you mention The Pittsburgh Courier, and some of the other newspapers; so really, you are a living legend and a piece of history and so it is my pleasure to talk to you.
James Williams: Thank you. Actually, I was an Engineering Officer; my cadet training was in that field and actually, I didnt fly. I was not a pilot.
Okay, okay hey, its good enough just to have you here just affiliated with the Tuskegee Airmen, the first of now many. And you paved the way. And thats exactly where the black airline pilots are trying to go right now trying to get more blacks (still, today), especially with black women into the cockpit. Anything you can say about those efforts as we close?
James Williams: Well, about five years ago, when I was invited to the Pentagon, they were still saying that, only 1.5% of the male pilots in the Air Force were black and they still had a problem with some of the instructors saying blacks were not qualified to fly blacks didnt have enough brains to fly. I mean, that was existing five years ago. Fortunately, the person I talked to said they were going to train more blacks. At that time [around five years ago], there were 3.3% female pilots, and I dont know exactly how many of those were black females.
Wow thats something else. And you should be lauded for all youve done. And I understand that you have brothers as well that are physicians?
James Williams: I had two brothers that were physicians. In fact, my older brother was on the board at Tuskegee University; and he was a very good friend of Dr. Payton (the former President of Tuskegee University); and Dr. Payton came to his funeral he was killed flying his own airplane. And he lost an engine, in a twin-engine Comanche, and he crashed the crash killed his son himself, and his sons girlfriend. And my other brother was an internist; the one that was killed was a specialist, an OBGYN. But all three of us were board-certified.
Well sir we wish you well. I know youre wrapping up your trip, back to wheres home?
James Williams: We live between Chicago and New Mexico. I grew up in New Mexico, mainly.
Well, have a safe trip back and thank you so much for coming to the program, and speaking to our listeners. Youre definitely a living legend, its glad just to have you on the program and feel free again, dont let this be the last time you do a radio interview - to come back anytime.
James Williams: Certainly appreciate the priviledge.