This is an Aug. 16, 2002 interview with Tuskegee Airman James Williams. It was his first ever radio interview at the age of 83. 


Welcome to the program, sir. 

James Williams: Thank you. 

How are you doing today, sir? 

James Williams: Doing pretty good. 

Good. Now you’re in town for the annual convention of the Tuskegee Airmen; and that started Wednesday… 

James Williams: That’s correct. 

First of all, let me just say it’s a pleasure just to have you on the show. I ran into you at the Black Airline Pilot Convention. Tell me how you got involved with the Tuskegee Airmen? 

James Williams: Well…I always wanted to fly. And one day, a Ford plane came into the little town I lived in – Las Cruces, New Mexico. And we went out on this dirt runway to see the airplane. And after that, I got interested in flying. But the way I got into the Army Air Corps – I applied for flight training. And while I was waiting to be accepted, they drafted me. And I’d been to college; I had four years of college, pre-med…so they sent me down to Camp Pickett, Virginia; they were going to send me to the Medical Administrative Office Candidates School. And while I was there, I found out it was pretty close to the Pentagon (and I had also had some airplane mechanic training, prior to that) so I went into the Pentagon; and I ran into the major who was at the Pentagon Procurement Office, and he was very cooperative. He took my credentials, and he told me, “We will transfer you in three weeks.” I thought I was going to go to Tuskegee for flight training, but instead, they were preparing for a bummer group, in addition to the fighter group. So what they did, they sent me down to Boca Raton Club for Basic Training – which was three months. And then I went to Yale University, in New Haven. And that’s where I got my commission for as aviation cadet. They trained 26 black cadets there. And I think of about, close to 15,000 cadets trained at Yale; but 26 of them were black. And, after I got my commission at Yale, they sent me to the Wright Engine School in New Jersey, where they make the engines for the B-25…then I went to Inglewood, California – where the airplane was made; at the North American plant, out there. And then they assigned me to a base where there were 25 bummers…in Colorado…I think I was the only black out there. And quite a few of the blacks who got their commissions at Yale – one of them ended up as the president of a college; one guy got a PhD. and an M.D.; and I got an M.D. and a Master’s Degree in Surgery; and I think there were about 4 or 5 others of the 26 who got PhD’s. 

Did you know during that time that time, when you were getting involved in flight training – did you know you were making history then? 

James Williams: Oh, yeah. At that time, I knew that there were no blacks in the Marine Corps; and the only thing a black did in the Navy – he was a mess attendant. And… 

How do you feel you were received? 

James Williams: Well, it was interesting. At Boca Raton, when I got down there, they didn’t segregate us – until they saw some other blacks…then they put the blacks in the rooms together. 

So one wasn’t a problem; but when they saw more than one…that’s interesting. 

James Williams: That’s right. And when I went to Yale, the only segregation was in housing. I was in the W’s, so the only black in my squadron was me; the rest were whites. I also want to mention that I was one of the 101 that they arrested in 1945 – when we refused to sign a statement that we would not go into a white officers’ club, the tennis courts, and swimming pool. And actually, it occurred April 12, 1945 – right when President Roosevelt was dying. He died that day, so they put the news of our arrest on The Pittsburgh Courier, The Kansas City Call, and P.M. – which was a newspaper in New York City, did publish the fact. 

Avery, you’re up and aboard! 

Avery: Ah, yes sir – Dr. Williams! I would like to know if you retired from the military; and if you did, what was your highest rank? 

James Williams: Well, my highest rank was First Lieutenant; but what I did, I left the military in 1946 to go back and finish by pre-med…in fact, while I was in the military, I went to Ohio State University at night, to take physics; so I could complete my pre-med requirements. So I got a degree in 1946, went into medical school in 1947; finished med school in 1951, and then I got a Master’s Degree in Surgery from Creighton University – in Omaha, Nebraska. 

Avery: That’s very, very successful. I wish my generation and beyond could do what you did – make some sacrifices and put their noses to the grindstone, and make everybody proud of ‘em; you know what I’m sayin’? Because I’m a Navy veteran (I was in the Persian Gulf War), and I try to do what I can to put my best foot forward. And…are you here for the Black Pilots’ Convention? 

James Williams: For the Tuskegee Airmen’s Convention, too. Let me just mention this: I was one of 101 black officers arrested. And this was April 12th of 1945; they charged us with the 69th article of war – which is treason during wartime. Actually, what we did helped to get Colonel Davis back to command the group…the composite group here in the states. And also helped integrate the Air Force and the rest of the Armed Forces. 

Wow. 

James Williams: I mean…the Navy, when I was in, the only thing they [blacks] did, was mess attendants; there were no blacks in the Marine Corps; and the only place where they were training black aviators was down at Tuskegee to fly. 

Which is where, at that airfield, you attended a ceremony where Congress (around four years ago) dedicated it as a national landmark – how was that ceremony? 

James Williams: Well, it was very good. We were a bit delayed getting down to Tuskegee, so part of the program we missed. I enjoyed the entire ceremony. 

Tell me…I know you met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; he was actually a patient of yours…I know you established the first black medical clinic in Chicago. And he was in Chicago at the time. Tell me about Reverend Martin Luther King. 

James Williams: Yes…well…I met Andy Young; Jesse Jackson, all of his associates at the time. And so I know most of them…and I also know that the FBI had no desire to ever like Martin Luther King. While he was in Chicago, apparently, they had eight or nine agents following him, all the time. 

And he knew it? 

James Williams: Well, we knew – in fact, my phone was tapped – so we knew the FBI was on the case… 

And…was he very personable? What was your relationship with him, and how long did you know him? 

James Williams: I knew him…and at the time, I was the President of the Cook County Physicians’ Association, which is a branch of the National Medical Association, in Chicago. So I talked to Dr. King, and he agreed to come back, and give a talk to the group. His attorney was our attorney, so we had good relationships. 

Good, good! I understand that this is your first radio interview… 

James Williams: That’s right. 

What, you just don’t like the radio? 

James Williams: Well, this is the first time I was asked to be on the radio. 

Wow…wow. And how old are you now, sir – may I ask? 

James Williams: How old am I? 

Yes, sir… 

James Williams: 83 years old. 

Wow. Last call – Lily, you’re up and aboard! 

Lily: Well hello, Dr. Williams! 



James Williams: Fine, and how are you? 

Lily: It’s a pleasure to talk to a piece of living history! And I’m just amazed about what type of rigorous program of study you went through – med school, and all that you went through…and also learned how to fly…I mean, you are a real inspiration to all those who are alive today. I’m a senior citizen, and this is the first time I’ve had a chance to talk to a legend…I’ve seen some of them in New York – Chairman Percy Sutton and Dr. Oscar Brown – I’ve heard them and seen them speak. But to talk to one directly, is really something. And, I take my hat off to you; I heard you mentioned some of the history of our race; I heard you mention The Pittsburgh Courier, and some of the other newspapers; so really, you are a living legend and a piece of history – and so it is my pleasure to talk to you. 

James Williams: Thank you. Actually, I was an Engineering Officer; my cadet training was in that field…and actually, I didn’t fly. I was not a pilot. 

Okay, okay…hey, it’s good enough just to have you here…just affiliated with the Tuskegee Airmen, the first of now many. And you paved the way. And that’s exactly where the black airline pilots are trying to go right now – trying to get more blacks (still, today), especially with black women – into the cockpit. Anything you can say about those efforts as we close? 

James Williams: Well, about five years ago, when I was invited to the Pentagon, they were still saying that, only 1.5% of the male pilots in the Air Force were black…and they still had a problem with some of the instructors saying blacks were not qualified to fly – blacks didn’t have enough brains to fly. I mean, that was existing five years ago. Fortunately, the person I talked to said they were going to train more blacks. At that time [around five years ago], there were 3.3% female pilots, and I don’t know exactly how many of those were black females. 

Wow…that’s something else. And you should be lauded for all you’ve done. And I understand that you have brothers as well…that are physicians? 

James Williams: I had two brothers that were physicians. In fact, my older brother was on the board at Tuskegee University; and he was a very good friend of Dr. Payton (the former President of Tuskegee University); and Dr. Payton came to his funeral – he was killed flying his own airplane. And he lost an engine, in a twin-engine Comanche, and…he crashed…the crash killed his son…himself,…and his son’s girlfriend. And my other brother was an internist; the one that was killed was a specialist, an OBGYN. But all three of us were board-certified. 

Well sir…we wish you well. I know you’re wrapping up your trip, back to…where’s home? 

James Williams: We live between Chicago and New Mexico. I grew up in New Mexico, mainly. 

Well, have a safe trip back…and thank you so much for coming to the program, and speaking to our listeners. You’re definitely a living legend, it’s glad just to have you on the program…and feel free…again, don’t let this be the last time you do a radio interview - to come back anytime. 

James Williams: Certainly appreciate the priviledge.