For a Tuskegee Airman in 1945, protesting an all-white officers club on an Indiana military base was easier said than done. So were most experiences for LeRoy Battle, a jazz musician, World War II aviator and retired Prince George's County educator who published his autobiography, "Easier Said," in 1996 and regularly makes a point of saying what's on his mind during visits to schools, bookstores and churches.
On Monday, Battle, 80, will discuss his role in history as a Tuskegee Airman and sign copies of his book at Borders Books & Music in Bowie.
Even before his career as a jazz drummer in Brooklyn was interrupted at age 22 by World War II, Battle wanted to be a role model. After his two-year stint in the squad of black fighter pilots, Battle spent 30 years working as a music teacher, guidance counselor and administrator in various county schools, striving to impart the lessons he learned as a Tuskegee Airman.
"How to overcome adversity, the idea of solving a problem using your head, looking for unique solutions to problems. Not giving up. Those are the ideals of the Tuskegee Airmen," Battle said. "We were set up to fail. Everyone felt that black men did not have the skill to push fighter planes through the sky."
Battle credits his 99-year-old mother, who lives with him and his wife in Harwood in Anne Arundel County, with giving him the tools to write his life story. She encouraged him at a young age to write down his ideas, important events and accomplishments, and store them in a shoe box. He knew it was time to write his autobiography when the shoe box was so full he could hardly fit a new slip of paper into it, let alone close it.
Perhaps the most important of Battle's carefully documented life experiences was choosing to leave Camp Upton in Long Island, where he was stationed after being drafted, to go to Alabama's Tuskegee Institute to learn to fly planes.
Although he was not part of the 322nd unit of the Tuskegee Airmen credited with surviving 200 missions without losing a bomber, Battle was in a squadron of 101 bomber pilots training at Freeman Field in Indiana who rebelled against base rules by trying to buy drinks at a club for white officers. They were arrested and threatened with hanging for disobeying a colonel's order during wartime when they refused to sign a regulation stating a black person could not enter -- and wouldn't again attempt to enter -- the club. The event, now known as the "Freeman Incident," ended when a black officer was called back from Europe to reorganize the rebelling airmen into different squadrons.
It's important to Battle that he tell his story so that it does not get lost, especially because, he said, "the Tuskegee Airmen are dying out."
"I want to be a beacon to young people so they don't forget. In the history books, we may be a memento or a paragraph. You have to look very hard to find something about the Tuskegee Airmen. I always tell people that their vast highway of knowledge has a few potholes, and I'd like to fill them," Battle said.
When he's not speaking publicly, his jazz combo, Roy Battle and the Altones, plays music from the '30s, '40s and '50s at weddings and other private gigs.
Sarah Launius, Borders' area marketing manager, said Battle has made such an impression on audiences, especially school groups, that when he is making bookstore appearances, children who are coincidentally in the store walk by him and point him out to their parents.
"A lot of people know his name, his face," Launius said. "He definitely has a place in the local community. He's a hard person not to immediately dish out respect for, and I think that's why people hear him when he talks. Their response is powerful."
LeRoy Battle lectures and signs his autobiography, "Easier Said," at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Borders Books & Music, 1115 Annapolis Mall in Annapolis. Free. 410-571-0923.