This Week: Flying in the Face of Prejudice
Hosted by Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2002; 1 p.m. ET
One week in May 1939, Chauncey Spencer and Dale White flew from Chicago into the history books. Their hazardous flight to Washington laid the groundwork for the legendary Tuskegee Airmen and helped break the color barrier in U.S. air forces.
Michael Laris, whose article "Freedom Flight" appears in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Tuesday, Feb. 18 at 1 p.m. ET, to field questions and comments about the article.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Somewhere, USA: Loved the article. Is Mr. Spencer still among the living? Your article seemed to imply that he has passed on -- but didn't come out and say it.
Michael Laris: Hello out there. I'm seeing quite a few questions from areas of the country that are not dealing with 2 feet of snow. Welcome all.
Yes, sadly, Chauncey died last year following a stroke. Many of the people who met him gathered in Lynchburg for a memorial service that he had scripted down to the smallest detail, including the jazz piano. Keeping in character, he had left instructions for people to gather and talk about, in his words, both the good and the bad.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Isn't it so ironic that while we fought against racism in World War II, we practiced it here at home? Did you learn more about the feelings of African-Americans who wished to join their fellow soldiers in that war, but were so denied? Did you obtain many comments, in your interviews for this excellent article, about how the African American soldiers felt about this discrimination?
Michael Laris: One of the most stunning things about doing the research for this article was digging through the old black papers, which were filled with terrible stories of lynchings and wonderful stories of courage in the face of incredible slights. One of the important themes in the papers was this idea that achieving equality, or moving toward it, in the military would bring about change in the rest of society. Once World War II started, the notion was described in shorthand as Double V, victory abroad and at home.
Princeton Junction, N.J.: Has Dale, Jr's school teacher daughter written her children's book about the flight?
Michael Laris: Not yet. Dale's last visit with Chauncey -- I can't help but use his first name, as everyone who ever met him also does -- included a long video interview that Dale Jr. hopes will add to the research for such a project. Another striking thing about talking with Dale Jr. about the flight was how much he did not know about what his father did, which was a great sadness for him. But it's clear he is not alone. It sounds cliche, but so many people don't ask their parents and grandparents about their histories -- ordinary or amazing -- until it is too late. As Dale Jr. described his banter with Chauncey, it was clear that it was also a way to get closer to his own father after the fact.
Lynchburg, Va.: No question just a comment. I am the youngest daughter of Chauncey Edward Spencer and was very impressed with your article on my father and his accomplishments.
I realize in reading this article that some people disagreed with the history making flight my father and Dale White made to show the congress that "Blacks can fly." If it had not been for Chauncey E. Spencer and Dale White, Sr. and the National Airmens Association in Chicago Illinois the Tuskeegee Airmen would not had the chance to defend our great Nation in World World II. My father was a great man and did many things to help all. He should be given this great honor and well as many more.
I remember sitting in the room the night before he took his last breath, he was breathing so hard and got very emotionally in which I had to leave the room. I left my mother with him and stepped out of the room. I got myself together and went back into the room, I asked my mother if my father responded to her and she said he kept saying, I don't want anyone angry with me, My mother immediately said, Chauncey you have nothing to worry about, you have done all great things for many around you.
She is continuing to spread his message"We are all Americans, There is no Black and White and well as his accomplishments.
Kyle Spencer Thompson
Michael Laris: Hello Kyle. The memories you, your mother and the rest of your family have shared about Chauncey have really helped keep his story alive. I will never forget the joy on your father's face when he was struggling to remember a fact and your mother would find it on a scrap of paper or on somewhere deep in her own memory. Chauncey would get such an enormous smile, and say something like, Anne, you did it again. He dedicated his autobiography to his two wonderful Anne's, his wife and his mother.
West Windsor, N.J.: I just finished reading the book, "Miracle at St. Anna," a novel about the Buffalo soldiers during World Wor II. My father-in-law was a Buffalo soldier and received a Purple Heart for his service and came home wounded. I didn't find out about his war experiences until I saw the Purple Heart pinned to his jacket in his casket last year. I would have loved to share his story with his great grandchildren. Your article was very enlightening also. More books should be written about the experiences of African-American men and women who have served the country.Has the daughter written her children's book about the flight?
Michael Laris: Thank you for writing in. That is really something. Maybe there are some people that are working to capture some of those stories who could share what they have learned. In researching pioneers like Chauncey, I came across some historians who were quietly going about recording hundreds of such stories before it was too late. Todd Moye at the the National Park Service, for example, heads up the Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project. He heads a group of historians who have set out around the country trying to record the stories of the Airmen themselves, as well as the support staff and everyone else who made it possible. Perhaps there's something else like that out there about the Buffalo soldiers.
Arlington, Va.: Your article demonstrates the inner strength and dignity that oppressed people can display as they struggle for respect and their rights. Overall, I found it highly inspiring and admire those whose history you narrated.
Too bad you seemed to slip into a little disrespect of your own when referred to Chauncey Spencer being "falsely slurred as a homosexual". Isn't it time to recognize that being called gay or homosexual is no more a slur than being called black?
Granted, the slur can be in the tone of voice and mind of someone else, Unfortunately, your phrase seems to suggest that YOU think being called gay is a slur.
As the proud parent and brother of wonderful gay people, I hope they will find the the increasing respect and freedom that black people also find (and well deserve).
Michael Laris: "Homosexual" is certainly no slur in my book. Unfortunately, that's not how his accusers -- or much of society -- saw it in the 1950s. Their goal was to discredit him, and that's the weapon they chose.
California: Being a black airman is a little like being a black quarterback, isn't it? As all the kids dreamed of flying, with so few having the skills, the Tuskegee Airmen debunked a lot of preconceived notions. Do you think it's ironic that black quarterbacks were doubted for a full 30 years after WWII? Thanks
Michael Laris: Pioneering is an overused word, but it's hard to find a better word for what a lot of people do, whether they are pilots or generals or quarterbacks. Doing, not just talking, really does seem to put the skeptics in their place.
Washington, D.C.: As a cousin of Chauncey's, I grew up across the street from Chauncey (we called him "Woogie"). Did you hear that name in your research? I always enjoyed him telling the stories about his exploits. I was thrilled to see it described in your article. Thanks
Michael Laris: Hi there. Chauncey would often describe his mother as calling him Woogie, which seemed to fit quite well indeed. He said his mom would walk about saying, Woogie has a plan. He's flying to Washington!
Long Beach, Calif.: How about an article on the "Triple Nickels", the 555th Parachute Regiment, the only all-black Airborne Unit of WWII? Thanks
Michael Laris: The parachute exploits -- in war, and even before -- would indeed be a fascinating story. Early on, Chauncey was engaged in "parachute races" in which the first guy to reach the ground wins.
washingtonpost.com: Could the poster who wrote in from Granville, Ohio please send contact info? It will be passed along to Mr. Laris.
Michael Laris: It has been a pleasure to have this chance to talk about Chauncey, Dale White and their flight. It's good to know that people can get to their modems even if they can't get to their cars. If anyone would like to reach me later with a question or comment, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks again to everyone out there.
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