William Davis' life was shaped by the color of his skin. His experiences have allowed him to be part of two historically significant conflicts – World War II, as a Tuskegee Airman, and the fight for equal rights.
Davis, who will be 90 in April, was born in Detroit, Michigan, but was raised in Glenview, Kentucky, just outside of Louisville. During his presentation at Somerset Community College on Tuesday, Davis said he and those who lived near him were referred to as “river rats” because they lived and worked in the bottom land surrounding the Ohio River. His home, he said, would flood at least every three years.
Once, while working with his grandfather in 1938, Davis said he was plowing with a team of mules when he saw something fly across the sky. He was amazed.
“I tied those mules to a tree and took off to find the postmaster, because he was the smartest one in town,” Davis said. “He told me it was an airplane. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to fly one of those,” and flying became my greatest desire.”
After attending Jackson Junior High and Central Colored High School, Davis was drafted to the military, which was racially segregated. Davis said he was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi to test and then sent to Tuskegee Army Air Field to train. He had to enter the college training detachment (CTD) in order to gain enough college credit hours to fly, he said.
“During World War II, black men were turned away when they tried to fly,” said Clarence Callis, a Tuskegee Airmen liaison that attended the SCC event with Davis and Julius Calloway III, the son of Julius Warren Calloway, Jr., an original Tuskegee Airman from Louisville. “Many people thought that black men did not have the academic capacity to fly an airplane even though many of these men had college degrees.”
In 1939, a law was passed by Congress that would designate funds to train African-American pilots. In 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt inspected the flight program at Tuskegee and flew with the chief civilian instructor C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, an African-American. Roosevelt’s flight drew national attention for the program and she secured additional funding for the program and the building of Moton Field. In all, 15,000 to 20,000 people served and are considered to all be Tuskegee Airmen, said Callis.
But, even though steps toward equality for these men were taken, Davis said he was still not treated fairly. He was court-martialed for flying by a white instructor, he said.
“I was grounded and court-martialed for doing exactly what they had trained me to do,” Davis said. “Another plane was in my air space and I held my ground, which was what I was supposed to do, but he just didn’t like it.”
And even though he was court-martialed, Davis said he was allowed to continue training and flying, but wasn’t allowed to be commissioned, even though the reprimand had occurred in primary training. His hearing was overseen by all white men. Those that allegedly broke the rules were appointed two African-American attorneys, both second lieutenants.
“We were told we could say three things: ‘Yes sir, no sir or no excuse,’” Davis said.
“Grounding and court-martialing was common,” Callis said. “Tuskegee Airmen were threatened with both if they received more than three kills. Their main job was to stay on the wing of the bomber. If the military lost a bomber, they would lose up to 10 men.”
Later, Davis was sent to Stewart Air Force Base as a mechanic. There, he ran into Ernest Davis, the nephew of Tuskegee Commander Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Davis and Ernest Davis remembered they had met at Tuskegee and soon Davis was flying with Ernest Davis every three to four weeks. Davis was also stationed at Godman Army Airfield, Fort Knox, Kentucky.
After the military, Davis attended the Wayne School of Aeronautics, the only one he was allowed to attend. He received his private pilot’s license and came back to Kentucky to attend Louisville Municipal College, as he was unable to attend the University of Louisville due to his race, he said.
He didn’t finish college, though, as he got married and needed a job.
“I was hired to sweep the floors at General Electric’s Appliance Park,” Davis said. “After about 12 years, I asked someone how I could get a better job. I was told to go back to school and a young white man, who was very kind, recommended electronics.”
Davis then went to school at night and graduated from the United Electronics Laboratories Institute after three years. He then became the first African-American GE hired in electronics engineering.
“I worked with a German man, the (same race) I was trying to shoot down a few years before, and he and I got three patents in three years for GE,” Davis said. “He was raised to supervisor level and he took me with him.”
Now retired, Davis said he is not bitter about anything, but is glad he has been around to see the changes that have taken place in the pursuit of complete equality, he said.
“He could be bitter,” said Callis. “But he is not; he has been committed, instead, to making things better.”
The Tuskegee Airmen event kicked off a year-long 50th Anniversary Speaker’s Series at SCC. To learn more about other events in the SCC 50th Anniversary Speaker’s Series, visit scc50.org.
Somerset Community College