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

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Joseph Hairston, outside the Northwest D.C. house he bought fifty years ago, in what was then and all-white neighborhood.
Jacob Fenston
Joseph Hairston, outside the Northwest D.C. house he bought fifty years ago, in what was then and all-white neighborhood.

The U.S. military is one of the most diverse institutions in the country today, but it wasn't always so. In 1940, as the United States geared up for World War II, African Americans comprised only 1 percent of military personnel, though they made up 10 percent of the general population.

Joseph Hairston was part of a generation that would change that. Enlisting in 1940, he would see combat in two wars, and become the Army's first black helicopter pilot.

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

"We were too poor to go places, so I couldn't be excluded from restaurants or hotels," says Hairston, who is now 91 years old, and who has lived in D.C. for more than half a century.

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.

"The military was completely segregated," he says. "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 vacancy.'"

But the last unit on that list wrote back and said there might be a vacancy in the medical detachment.

"The medical detachment wrote back and said, "We have one vacancy; you can come up for an interview. Now, the key part of that story is that if you tell me I can't do it, that forces me to try. That's how I got in the Army."

Military life during World War II

In the segregated Army, the top brass were all white, and many came from the South. Hairston says all of them believed blacks did not make good soldiers.

He recalls one instance when he was stationed near Little Rock, Arkansas in 1942, when the commanding officer gathered all the black officers together. The War Department had the stated goal of enlisting African Americans in proportion to their share of the general population, roughly 10 percent.

"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 that we die.'"

During World War II, Hairston was commissioned as an officer, and fought in Italy with the 92nd Infantry Division. He went on to serve 20 years in the Army. At the end of his military career in 1960, he got a law degree from American University, and an L.L.M. from Georgetown University. Hairston later went on to become a senior executive at the IRS.

President Harry Truman officially desegregated the military in 1948, under pressure from black leaders, many of whom, like Hairston, had served in World War II.

But even as the military became more egalitarian, 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. Like many, Hairston worried that if the March turned violent, it would be a major setback to the civil rights movement. To help prevent that, he drew on his Army experience.

"My suggestion was to organize like a military unit. Platoons, companies, battalions, regiment."

That day 50 years ago, Hairston was there, with a radio, ready in case any trouble should arise.

"During that March, I was on top of the Lincoln Memorial. Now, King is making the speech, if the camera had panned up, you would have seen me at the top."

'Don't try to get even'

Around that same time, 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.

"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 n******.' Now this is a challenge. But we made an appointment. And they opened the door, and the woman who opened the door, and the agent, you could see their eyes bulge out. But they didn't know how to get rid of me. So they let us in."

To put in an offer on the house, he sent the white secretary from his friend's real estate office. So the owner didn't know it was Hairston who was trying to buy the house.

"We go to settlement, and the owner of the house says, 'I'm not going to sell to this n*****.' The agent tells her if she doesn't sell it she can never sell it. See, I have the assigned right to buy this house. So she has to sign. That's how I'm in this house."

Hairston still lives in the house. Over the years, he and the former owner got to know each other, and they eventually became friends. Hairston says one lesson his nine decades on this earth have taught him: don't try to get even.

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

[Music: "Watching Lara" by Yann Tiersen from Good Bye Lenin! Original Soundtrack]

Photos: Joseph Hairston


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