Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate and a visiting professor at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the LongerRange Future, speaks on November 27 and 28
Week of  23 November 2001 · Vol. V, No. 14


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Blacks in the military
A long uphill climb toward a level playing field

By Hope Green

Taken prisoner in World War II after his plane was shot down over Germany, George Iles thought his German captors would be exceptionally harsh with him because he was African-American. Recalling his mistake today, he laughs wryly.


George Iles (SMG'48) in his BU yearbook photo


"I went through several POW camps," he says, "but the Germans treated me and the other black pilots just like the white pilots. My friends and I thought it was very ironic, because everywhere else we'd been, we were segregated and treated as inferior. We had to get shot down to be treated as equals."
Iles (SMG'48) was one of America's first black fighter pilots, serving in the storied Army Air Corps regiment known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The segregated fighter group destroyed hundreds of enemy aircraft and won more than 850 medals for valor, silencing racists who had insisted that blacks could not be trained to fly.

Blacks have served in every war the United States has been involved in since the Revolution, and until the 1960s and 1970s, history books largely ignored the numerous examples of their heroism. Few children learned, for instance, about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a volunteer group of blacks who fought during the Civil War, or the Harlem Hellfighters, a National Guard outfit from New York City that earned the Croix de Guerre from France in World War I. The 1952 film Red Ball Express has been widely criticized for downplaying the role of blacks in World War II's Battle of the Bulge, where as truck drivers they risked their lives delivering badly needed supplies to U.S. troops in France.

Today blacks make up approximately 10 percent of officers and 30 percent of enlisted personnel in the Army, and about 5 percent of officers and more than 15 percent of enlistees in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. Yet it was just 53 years ago that President Harry Truman signed an executive order ending segregation in the armed forces, and all branches of the military were not fully integrated until the Vietnam War.

Herein, Iles and two other black veterans describe what it was like to serve their country during that time of transition. A fourth man, an Army major who completed BU's Reserve Officer Training Corps program in 1988, adds his perspective on how times have changed in the military.

Segregation in the airIles enlisted in the Army in the early 1940s, when he was halfway through his undergraduate studies at Quincy College in Illinois. He was one of about 1,000 black pilots whom the Army Air Corps (predecessor of the U.S. Air Force) trained at an isolated boot camp in Tuskegee, Ala., in an endeavor then referred to by the government as the Tuskegee Experiment. Graduates of the program went to Europe and formed the 332nd Fighter Group. Their commanding officer was Benjamin Davis, who later became the first black general in the Air Force.

"Many people thought the Tuskegee Experiment would fail, but it didn't," Iles says. "Colonel Davis was a very stern taskmaster because he knew that the future of blacks in aviation was riding on our success."

Iles completed his Air Corps training in May 1944, and participated in 23 strafing missions over northern Italy, Germany, and Austria before he was shot down and taken prisoner in February 1945. American troops liberated him two months later. "When I returned to the United States," he says, "there was still only one base that would accommodate black pilots, and that was Tuskegee."

He stayed on at the base for a year, until he received a commission in the regular Army. A fortunate side benefit was the chance to continue his college education tuition-free. After graduating from BU in 1948, Iles returned once again to Tuskegee and served as an instructor pilot. The same year Truman issued his executive order desegregating the military, which opened up a number of career paths for blacks. Iles attended an intelligence school in Denver and eventually rose to the rank of colonel, serving in the Korean and Vietnam wars before retiring in 1973.

"By the time I served in Korea, the Army was accepting blacks in almost any position you could qualify for," Iles says. "In Vietnam, of course, things had progressed to the point where there just wasn't much discrimination.
"I was always very proud that the first element in American society to integrate was the U.S. military," he says. "I think the Tuskegee Airmen had a hand in hastening the integration of blacks into the civilian world, because we proved during World War II that we could do the job as well as anybody else."

The French connection
James Teele, a CAS professor of sociology, was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1950 and attended intelligence school in Fort Riley, Kans., expecting to serve in Korea. Instead he was assigned to an engineering battalion in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for a year before heading to Verdun, France. This was the first time France had allowed American soldiers back into the country after World War II.

"President Truman prevailed on France to let us back in," Teele says. "He was afraid that the Korean conflict was a diversionary tactic that the Russians had designed to get us to send a lot of troops and men to the Far East while they attacked Europe through Germany. Our job was to build a supply route and a rear base in France to back up our troops in Germany in case they had to retreat."

Teele was a noncommissioned intelligence sergeant for his battallion. He was chosen for the French mission partly because of his familiarity with the culture and language: he had studied for two months in and around Paris as part of his undergraduate program at Virginia Union University.

Apart from top-secret duties he's still not at liberty to discuss, Teele was in charge of maintaining good relations between the U.S. soldiers and the local French population.

"I organized a big party at an outdoor café," Teele says, smiling as he recalls the riverfront bash. "I put an announcement in the local newspaper inviting the whole city of Verdun, because the colonel said we should have some women there to keep up troop morale. I knew the only way to bring girls to the party was to invite their parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, too."
After 14 months, Teele was promoted to the rank of sergeant first class. His fellow troops were all black and fewer than half the officers were white, despite Truman's 1948 executive order. The battalion wasn't integrated until Teele had completed his tour of duty. As he was leaving, an officer encouraged him to stay and make his career in the military, but by then Teele had already made up his mind to pursue a graduate degree in sociology at New York University.

Yet his experience in the Army was positive. "It was the most democratic organization I'd ever been part of," he says, "because I grew up in Virginia and had to sit on the back of buses to go to school. The Army rewarded you on the basis of merit, and for the most part, I was a good soldier."

Service in the service
W. Norman Johnson, BU's vice president and dean of students, witnessed the integration of the Navy over a period of three decades, eventually attaining the rank of rear admiral in 1983. Born and raised in Roxbury, he enlisted in 1956, when the civil rights movement was just getting under way. He frequently confronted racism when he ventured outside his boot camp in Perryville, Md. In one instance, he tried to buy a sandwich at a restaurant near the base but was informed he had the wrong skin color.

"My answer was, 'Take a look around this place -- it looks like they're all sailors to me, and if you refuse to serve me I'll go back to the base and say you're not serving sailors,'" Johnson recalls. "It was unmitigated gall on my part, but they served me."

After boot camp, Johnson was determined to become an officer. By the late 1960s he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander on a destroyer.
"Most blacks in the Navy were in service functions when I joined, such as laundrymen, cooks, and stewards," he says. "But as the Navy realized we had something more to offer, blacks were allowed to attend school and earn some of the critical ratings, such as sonar men, radio men, and machinists. The black officers I knew and some of the fellows coming out of the Naval Academy were getting better assignments. But it was a hard nut to crack when you think of the history of the U.S. Navy and how long it was truly segregated.

"A lot has changed in the military as a result of the work of civil rights lawyers and the NAACP, as well as the Supreme Court decisions ending segregation," he says. "These are the sorts of things that made the playing field tilt a little more toward level."

"Totally different Army"

  W. Norman Johnson in Quang Tri Province in August 1967, when he was head of the Military Assistance Plans Branch. One of his assignments was to recruit Filipino troops, many of whom had been trained as forest rangers, to cut down trees so the Marines could build bunkers for a base at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of W. Norman Johnson
Jason Vick (SMG'88) began his career as an Army logistician not long before Colin Powell, now secretary of state, was named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 1989. Powell has been just one of many inspirational figures for Vick, who studied business and management information systems while completing the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at BU.

Vick served as a platoon leader in the Gulf War and worked as a logistics officer for several years. Now he's pursuing an MBA at Baker University and a master's degree in military arts and sciences at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.

Much has changed, he says, since two of his uncles were in the armed services between the Korean and Vietnam wars. "Their impressions of military life are a lot different from mine," Vick says. "They didn't believe, and it wasn't commonly expected, that black men could advance in the military or in society. But when I graduated from high school in 1984, I felt I could do or be anything I wanted. And in the Army I haven't seen my race as being a limiting factor for my potential.

"Back in my uncles' time, in the 1950s, you could crack racist jokes or make offensive comments in the Army, but you can't get away with that now," he adds. "Even profanity by and large isn't the norm. More important, there's an inspector general at every installation, and if someone believes he has been a victim of discrimination, there's a way to address that.
"If you talk to some of the guys who served during Vietnam and are now sergeant majors and generals, they'll say this is a totally different Army than we had back then," Vick says. "The Army and other branches of the military have been a model for integration in the rest of society."





By day, she's Ruth Mason, a mild-mannered academic administrator. By night, she's Ruby, a sultry-voiced blues crooner who appears in some of Boston's hottest nightclubs.

Mason, director of ENG's department of manufacturing engineering, has maintained this dual identity ever since she started working at BU 15 years ago. She sings with a popular local band called the Sky Blues.

"I've wanted to perform live music ever since I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show," she says, recalling the Fab Four's television debut in 1964. "It's a really hard business sometimes, but it's also exciting and wild."

Mason and her husband, guitarist Bill Mason, have performed together since the early 1980s. As a duo or with a band, they have produced four critically acclaimed CDs and warmed up for several famous artists, including David Crosby and Jonathan Edwards. They have played major clubs in New York and Boston, including the House of Blues and the Hard Rock Cafe.

Yet at times Mason finds a small neighborhood bar a welcome change of pace. One of her favorite venues is O'Leary's in Brookline, a Beacon Street pub just a few blocks south of her BU office. The narrow, deep dining room has no space for a keyboard or drum kit, but she doesn't mind.

"It's a really fun, interesting night because we have to take a totally different approach to our music," she says. "It's all acoustic. I spend the night playing harmonica and melodica [a wind instrument with a keyboard] and singing. The music takes on a simpler, bare-bones quality that I like because you can capture the essence of a song that way."

A farmer's daughter from the tiny village of Graham, Mo., Mason was a soloist in her church gospel choir and later studied voice and piano at Northwest Missouri State University. The Masons met and joined a band while Ruth was working at the University of Arizona, and subsequently the entire group moved to New Hampshire. "It was a whole different scene back then," Mason says. "There were a lot of big clubs in the resort and ski areas that paid very well, and we did a great business."

After four years of touring the Northeast, that band broke up, but Ruth and Bill found their niche in Boston's thriving blues-rock community. Meanwhile, in 1986, Ruth resurrected her career in academia, taking a job in the dean's office at the College of Engineering. The couple launched the Sky Blues in 1991 with two former bandmates.

Today the Masons produce their CDs in a recording studio that Bill runs at their Roslindale home. They have a large circle of talented musician friends, who annually attend a giant summer party at the house.

"It's an all-day and into-the-night jam session," Mason says. "We invite the whole neighborhood, people of all ages. Even the local politicians show up."
Like those gatherings, the Masons' club performances are filled with improvisation.

"You have nights where everything goes well and the audience is so supportive that if you were to die tomorrow, it's OK -- you've had your night," Mason says. "There are also nights where you're playing in unbelievably seedy clubs. Sometimes the whole place breaks out into a brawl, and you're not sure if you should keep playing or get off the stage. These kinds of things happen, although not as often as when we were starting out."

Outdoor music festivals are usually an ideal venue, but there are exceptions.
"Once we were performing at a big show in Englishtown, N.J., for 5,000 people," Mason says. "We were paid lots of money and it was a great gig by any musician's measure -- but it rained the entire day. There was mud everywhere, and we had to lug heavy equipment through it and our shoes were sinking in it, so by the time we finished the set we were exhausted and covered with mud from head to toe. So much for the glamorous life of a musician."

At the moment the Masons are preparing to release a new CD, with guest appearances by members of the Tar Box Ramblers, the Roys, and other well-regarded Boston groups. The band will also announce its new identity: the artists previously known as the Sky Blues will become Bird Mancini, named after a fictitious third performer the Masons invented back when they were performing as a duo. Ruth Mason has tested the name out on some friends, who tell her it connotes jazz saxophone legend Charlie "Yardbird" (a.k.a. "Bird") Parker as well as pop composer Henry Mancini.

Mason likes the handle, she says, because it "covers a wide, undefinable genre." She and her husband both grew up listening to the Beatles, intrigued by the style-mixing that made the band hard to categorize as purely rock 'n' roll. The Masons and their bandmates, Sven Larson and Dave Roy, likewise incorporate diverse musical traditions. Along with the standard blues instruments, they improvise with violin, accordion, and gangkoqui -- a type of East Indian drum.

Their new CD, which Mason hopes will be released before January, also offers a taste of bossa nova and Western honky-tonk. There is even a touch of the old-time gospel she learned back in Missouri. But through all the band's music runs a common thread that she calls "bluesy, jazzy, rock."
"We just want to write good songs and present them in the best way that we possibly can, without trying to fit into any particular genre," Mason says. "There's still a lot of blues going through our music and it's still the base of what we do, it's just that we're going in a new direction.

"It's too bad the music industry feels the need to categorize," she adds, "because we don't feel the need any more. If the industry wants to catch up with us sometime, that's fine. We'll just put it out there ourselves."

For upcoming concert dates, visit For more information, call 617-325-0604, or e-mail


23 November 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations