First Black Army Helicopter Pilot Recalls Discrimination In Military And D.c. (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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First Black Army Helicopter Pilot Recalls Discrimination in Military and D.C.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
From the future, we move back in time now, to the year 1940. As the nation geared up for war, not everyone who wanted to fight was allowed in. African Americans made up 10 percent of the population at the time, but comprised just 1 percent of the military, and that included only a dozen black officers. Joseph Hairston was part of a generation that would change that. As Jacob Fenston tells us, the long-time Washingtonian would see combat in two wars and become the Army's first black helicopter pilot.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:00:34
Growing up, Joseph Hairston never really experienced segregation. He grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania.

MR. JOSEPH HAIRSTON

00:00:40
We were too poor to go places, so I couldn't be excluded from restaurants or hotels, I never went.

FENSTON

00:00:47
But after graduating from high school, he and a white friend went to the local Army recruiter. The recruiter signed up the friend immediately, but told Hairston there was no room.

HAIRSTON

00:00:57
The military was completely segregated. There was a quota of blacks worldwide, and he couldn't find a vacancy. He gave me a list of 30-odd black organizations. I wrote to every one of them. They wrote back and said, "Sorry, no vacancies." The last unit I wrote to, they wrote back and said, "Sorry, no vacancies, but we think there's a vacancy at the medical detachment." The only unit not on my list. The medical detachment wrote back and said, "We have one vacancy. You can come up for an interview."

HAIRSTON

00:01:32
Now, the key part of that story is that if you tell me I can't do it, then that forces me to try. That's how I got in the Army.

FENSTON

00:01:41
What was racism like in World War II? How did you experience that?

HAIRSTON

00:01:45
Well, the top general staff were uniform in their position that blacks were not good soldiers, that they wouldn't fight, and you couldn't be depended on. In 1942 I was stationed near Little Rock, Ark. The commanding officer called the white and the black officers together on a Sunday. And after his first ranting and raving, he dismissed the white officers and the black officers remained. His statement was, "You people constitute 10 percent of the population of this nation. I'm going to see that you exercise 10 percent of the casualties." In other words, he's going to make sure we die.

FENSTON

00:02:30
How did African Americans in the armed forces in those years, when it was segregated, react to this sort of racism that you were describing?

HAIRSTON

00:02:37
It varied. To begin with, the military tried not to concentrate too many blacks in any one place. We were put together for the first time at Fort Huachuca, which is on the border in Arizona. At one time we had about 30 black officers in the guard house for being -- my words -- uppity. In other words, they didn't react properly -- well, what was expected of blacks to whites.

FENSTON

00:03:06
So the guard house was like a jail?

HAIRSTON

00:03:08
That's a jail.

FENSTON

00:03:09
During World War II, Hairston was commissioned as an officer, and fought in Italy. He went on to serve 20 years in the Army. Then later, he got a law degree from Georgetown University, and became a senior executive at the IRS. While the military officially desegregated in 1948, many aspects of civilian life were still years behind. In 1963 Hairston was part of the security detail for Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington.

HAIRSTON

00:03:39
During that march I was on top of the Lincoln Memorial. If the camera had panned up, you would have seen me at the top.

FENSTON

00:03:49
That same year he was looking to buy a house in a white neighborhood in Northwest D.C. He had a friend who was in the real estate business call up the listing agent.

HAIRSTON

00:03:57
He didn't have a black accent, so the agent thought he was talking to a white person. And the agent told him, among other things, "But, she's not going to sell to any (censored by network). Now this is a challenge.

FENSTON

00:04:08
To put an offer on the house, he sent the white secretary from his friend's real estate office, so the owner didn't know he was the one trying to buy it.

HAIRSTON

00:04:16
And the owner of the house says, "I'm not going to sell to this (censored by network). The agent tells her, "If you don't sell it, you can never sell it because there's a cloud on the title." So she has to sign. That's how I'm in this house.

FENSTON

00:04:31
Over the years, he and the former owner got to know each other, and they eventually became friends. Hairston is now 91 years old. And one lesson those years have taught him, don't try to get even.

HAIRSTON

00:04:42
Getting even, to me, is ancient. That's not a civilized way to think. You bring yourself down in getting even with the person.

FENSTON

00:04:52
And he says there's always a better way, whether you're buying a house, launching a career or fighting for racial equality. I'm Jacob Fenston.

SHEIR

00:05:03
To see photos of Joseph Hairston and other members of the 92nd Infantry who served during World War II visit our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:05:25
Time for a break, but when we get back, a brand new kind of diet, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with food.

MS. LAUREN TALLEY

00:05:34
You can just, like, run to any department store and, like, pick up an outfit, but to make something, like you really have to want to make it.

SHEIR

00:05:41
That and more in just a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

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00:05:47
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