The two men told children more than 80 years their junior of the troubles they’d seen, and the changes they’d helped make real.
The men, Army veterans Dabney N. Montgomery, 92, and William DeFour, 97, had fought during World War II as members of the Tuskegee Airmen, black aviation personnel whose success helped persuade the White House to end segregation in the U.S. military.
Speaking to students at the Front Street Elementary School in Hempstead on Friday during a Black History Month program, they urged members of a fifth-grade class — almost all of them the offspring of Spanish-speaking immigrants — not to allow discrimination to dissuade them from success.
“They said it was a job we could not do,” said Montgomery, who was among thousands of black personnel who served in all-black aviation units during the war, most of them after participating in an experimental training program based in Tuskegee, Alabama. “But we said ‘when the job gets tough, we get tougher.’ ”
The Tuskegee program was organized in 1941, after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People pressured President Franklin Roosevelt to end the military’s ban on African American pilots. The program eventually trained thousands of pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners and other air and grounds crew members. Its success is credited with persuading President Harry S. Truman in 1948 to sign Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the U.S. military.
Montgomery served in the 1051st Quartermasters Company, attached to the 96th Air Service Group, based at Ramitelli, Italy.
He told students that when he returned to his native Selma, Alabama after the war, he was not allowed to vote. A white registration clerk told him he would have to find three white men willing to vouch for his character before she would consider his application. But when he was able to meet that stipulation, the clerk demanded that he prove he owned at least $1,000 worth of property — a princely amount in a WWII era in which most soldiers earned less than $800 per year.
He said many black soldiers who fought in WWII helped spawn the civil rights movement that led to the Montgomery bus boycott and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, during which Montgomery helped provide security for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Montgomery said the worn-out heels of the shoes he wore during the march have been accepted, along with a necktie he wore, as part of the exhibition of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, scheduled to open in Washington D.C. this fall.
Emeli Yanez, 10, whose parents are from Honduras, asked Montgomery what he thought of the discrimination that he and other Americans have had to endure.
“We have lost so much talent, we have lost so much achievement because of discrimination,” Montgomery said. “There is enough apple pie in the world for everyone to have a slice.”
DeFour, a soft-spoken, bespectacled former postal manager, and a Harlem resident as is Montgomery, said he had been talking to students at Black History Month events for years.
“We need to spread the word to let them know what went on in our time,” DeFour said. “It’s history.”