AfriGeneas Military Research Forum Archive
Re: Patriots of Color
In Response To: Patriots of Color ()
IN AN ERA WHEN SOUTHERN BLACK MEN AND WOMEN FOUND NUMEROUS. OBSTACLES IN THE WAY AS THEY ATTEMPTED TO HAVE A VOICE IN GOVERNMENT, SHERMAN AND NETTIE HAD BEEN ALLOWED 'IO REGISTER TO VOTE WITHOUT INTERFERENCE.
Sherman Jr. graduated from high school just as the pall of the Great Depression descended. He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that provided young men employment in public works projects. While times were tough everywhere, the White family pulled together, their frugality and hard work enabling them to weather the Depression-era storm. For a time the news of a war in Europe did little to change the world of the Whites. But the passage of the first peacetime military draft late in 1940 cast a shadow, especially for Sherman Jr., whose age-twentyone-made him drafteligible. He registered, but, to his parents' relief, was not called up. Sherman and Nettie's highest dreams for their son seemed finally within reach as he left to pursue a college degree. It was expensive, but Sherman Jr. worked at a cafe to pay his tuition, room, and board at the prestigious University of Chicago. Chicago had been a center for civilian flight training for blacks. This probably had some influence on young Sherman's decision in the summer of 1941 to seek military flight training in the War Department's Tuskegee experiment. This program had grown out of a U.S. Army Air Corps decision to train aviation cadets for the first black flying unit, in fact the first involvement in aviation for black servicemen in the history of the United States armed forces. Since the American military was still segregated as it had always been, all the training and the formation of a tactical unit were to take place at new Army air fields constructed at Tuskegee, Alabama, where civilian flight training for blacks had been conducted in conjunction with Tuskegee Institute. Most ofthe Air Corps leadership were dubious about the experiment, but publicity about it and what it symbolized for the advancement of African Americans in general had become fairly widespread. It offered a prospect few black men had ever considered-the promise of being commissioned as an officer, wearing a pilot's wings of silver. The Tuskegee Army Air Corps' pioneering first class graduated in March 1942 as fighter pilots. Training with them and receiving wings of silver was Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., West Point graduate and son of the Army's only black general. It was a small class, but other classes, all carefully selected, followed as the chore of putting together a fighter squadron got under way. Sherman Jr. was accepted as an aviation cadet in Tuskegee's third class in September 1941. He soon began to prevail upon his parents to move back to Montgomery, so that they would be nearer. It was no easy decision.
Sherman Sr.'s hard work and dignified manner had earned him the respect of both the black and white communities of Elmore County. In an era when southem black men and women found numerous obstacles as they attempted to have a voice in government, Sherman and Nettie had been allowed to register to vote without interference. White politicians who needed the black vote in Elmore County knew they should first win the loyalty of Sherman White. When the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, Sherman had been one of the few black citizens in his area to be selected to supervise the black community in the federally mandated rationing of food, gasoline, tires, clothing, and other essential items. Sherman and Nettie had come a long way. But a return to Montgomery would enable them to take course work at Alabama State, which could lead to better paying jobs for both of them. They would be able to see more of Sherman Jr. As an added inducement, Sherman Jr. volunteered to make the mortgage payments from his officer's pay on the house they would choose in Montgomery. So they moved. Sherman Jr. was outgoing and outspoken, with a wry sense of humor-just the image one would expect of a fighter pilot. Of course, during his strict training as an aviation cadet, he was forced to curb these traits.. .somewhat. Many years later, Samson would recall that, during his cousin's flight training, Sherman would manage to "buzz" (fly low over) the family farm on occasion, thrilling everyone there. His training completed in May 1942, newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Sherman White was placed on active duty in the Air Corps Reserve. He was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron-the first black tactical air unit in the U.S. armed forces-as it trained for war in 1942 and 1943. Early in 1943 the White family said their good byes to Sherman Jr., now a first lieutenant, as he and the 99th Squadron moved overseas to North Africa. For Sherman and Nettie, World War II had suddenly become painfully real, and the sacrifices were just beginning.