The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black servicemen to serve as military aviators during World War II. At the time, there were about 40,000 African Americans enlisted in the military. By 1945, this number had increased to 1.2 million, with black men and women serving on the homefront, in the Pacific and in Europe. Between 1942 and 1946, 992 pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Army Airfield, with 450 serving overseas in either the 99th Fighter Squadron or the 332nd Fighter Group. They were supported by hundreds more servicemen in additional all-black companies.
We were fortunate to speak with one of the Tuskegee Airmen, Dabney N. Montogmery, about his experience during World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. Now 92 years old, Mr. Montgomery served in the 1051st Quartermaster Company, supplying the airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group during their deployment in Southern Italy in 1944. He sat down with us for an interview this past January and recounted one harrowing night in particular.
"We were stationed—my outfit, that dealt with food and clothing—downstream from Mount Vesuvius. And Mount Vesuvius decided one night to blow its top. Smoke was coming up, and the wind was blowing smoke and ash and dust right down in our direction. Everybody in my company, 1051st Quartermaster, had to put on gas masks. Now, that was a tough night, because we had to wear those gas masks for twelve hours, and then after the gas masks we had to clean up—you see these people cleaning the snow up around New York City right now? This is what we had to do with that ash that came down from Mount Vesuvius. And that was indeed a tough night, when we stood up, in spite of all of this, and said, 'We will fight.'"
Dabney N. Montgomery, Tuskegee Airman, served in the 1051st Quartermaster Company of the 96th Air Service Group, attached to the 332nd Air Fighter Group in Southern Italy. He is 92.
Mr. Montgomery speaks at a Talk-Back for Fly on the New Victory stage. He was joined by his wife, Amelia Montgomery, who serves as president of the Tri-State Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen.
After the war, Mr. Montgomery received a degree in Religious Education from Livingstone College in North Carolina, and later trained in classical dance at both the Boston Conservatory of Music and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet here in New York; but the moral call to return to his native Selma, Alabama and break the segregated law was unwavering—a constant voice in the back of his head. "The pressure was so hard on me, it wouldn’t leave," he said, comparing it to the clenched jaw of a predatory animal. He answered the voice in May of 1957, returning to Selma and breaking the law by drinking from a whites-only drinking fountain inside the Dallas County Sheriff's Department!
The Selma community, Mr. Montgomery's family and childhood friends and neighbors, were not ready for that brand of activism just yet. Fearing retribution from law enforcement, they attributed his law-breaking to post-war "shell shock" and asked that he head back to New York. He would not return to Alabama until 1965, when he wound up serving as a bodyguard to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the march from Selma to Montogomery! "It was terrific, exciting and... sometimes heavier than the Tuskegee Airmen and Southern Italy," he said.
When we asked him what he'd like our young audiences to know about his life experience, as both a Tuskegee Airman and an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, he spoke of his and his peers' perserverance and moral tenacity. "In spite of all of the difficulties," he said, "we had faith and truth and right, and we stood up for that faith and truth and right." And whether he's visiting a local high school or attending a Talk-Back here at The New Victory, Mr. Montogomery consistently delivers that inspirational message, along with one other mantra:
"When the laws of the state conflict with the conscience of man, the laws of the state must be peacefully broken."
||To hear more about Mr. Montgomery's experience, follow us on Instagram, where we're posting longer excerpts from our interview. And don't miss the uplifting story of Fly, on the New Victory stage through March 27.