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chauncey-spencerWho Is Chauncey Spencer? is the title of the autobiography of a pioneer of racial integration.

Spencer’s original 1975 book has been reprinted, with some additional photographs added.

To purchase a copy, contact Chauncey Spencer II, at chauncey.spencer2@gmail.com

The cost is $20 plus shipping.

Image of Chauncey Spencer, Sr. at his desk in the 1950s

Surprisingly little known, given the historical importance of his work, Chauncey E. Spencer, Senior, was a civil rights pioneer.

Wanting a career in aviation from the time he first saw an airplane, Spencer faced a wall of discrimination. Blacks were excluded from training programs everywhere, even from military-sponsored programs that were open to every other citizen of the United States.

Chicago was one of the few places an aspiring Black aviator would get training. Spencer moved there and pursued training.

In 1939, Chauncey Spencer and fellow-pilot and friend Dale White, with sponsorship from the National Airmen’s Association (NAA), decided to fly to Washington, D.C., to plead their case to Illinois congressman Everett Dirksen. While there, they happened to meet Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman and they buttonholed him.

In his autobiography Spencer wrote he wanted to “… dramatize the need for the inclusion of the Negro in the Army Air Corps.” When he and Dale White met with Truman, Spencer told the Senator why they were in Washington. Truman demanded, “Why aren’t you in the Air Corps? Can’t you get in?” Truman was genuinely surprised by their answer: no, they could not get in. They and others had tried repeatedly but not only had they been rejected, they had been humiliated.

Truman questioned them sharply and in the end agreed to put through legislation “insuring that Negros would be trained along with whites under the Civilian Pilot Training Program.”

The story of the first successful racial integration

The story of the first successful racial integration in the United States is not well known. It is possible to trace the beginnings back to the integration of the U.S. Air Force.

cornelius-coffey
Cornelius Coffey – about 1939

In the 1930s, it was very difficult for Blacks who wanted to learn to fly airplanes to get training. C. Alfred Anderson earned his commercial Air Transport pilot license in 1932, then was the only black pilot to hold that level of certification for many years. Others followed. In 1936, Cornelius Coffey and Earl Renfroe earned their instructor’s ratings, and began training other black pilots in Chicago. To provide mutual support for black pilots, they formed the National Airmen’s Association (NAA).

In the meantime, there were many opportunities for white pilots to receive training. Particularly during the time war was brewing in Europe, the U.S. government began preparing. It was recognized that if we were drawn into the war, we would need a large pool of pilots who had basic flying skills. In 1938, the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) was established to give large numbers of interested individuals access to free instruction.

Opportunities for black pilots were severely restricted. Blacks were excluded from participation in the CPTP, and were excluded from the role of pilot in the Army Air Force. Many, including C. Alfred Anderson, tried to join the military to be pilots but were slotted into other roles. Anderson, for example, found himself assigned to janitorial duties.

Things began to change in 1939. Chauncey Spencer and his friend, Dale White, flew from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to visit with members of Congress, trying to get Black pilots included in the CPTP.

By chance, they ended up meeting with Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman. He questioned them sharply, but when Spencer and White explained the situation to him, Truman was shocked. It offended him deeply that a citizen of the United States would be excluded from opportunities to serve. He promised he would introduce legislation to change open opportunities for blacks to join the CPTP and participate in the military.

In 1941, President Roosevelt signed an order outlawing discrimination at all Federal installations and he authorized an all-black unit in the Air Force, to see if it was possible to train black pilots for military service. The airmen who served in this unit were highly successful and are now known as the “Tuskegee Airmen.”

Black airmen who went overseas to serve in the Second World War were commissioned officers and they found themselves treated with respect overseas. There, they were regarded as Americans, not as representatives of a race. After the War, though, they came home to the same racial discrimination they had faced when they left. By this time, though, they were not going to put up with it. Many of these individuals became the nucleus of the modern civil rights movement.

Roosevelt’s order outlawing discrimination in the military required hard work to implement. Discharged from the military in 1941 because of his age, Spencer was assigned to be the Employee Relations Officer at Patterson Field, near Dayton, Ohio. In time, he was assigned to implement integration orders in all Air Force bases.

Spencer had his orders from the War Office to integrate the Air Force and to do it quickly. There was a lot of resistance, both from whites and blacks, but within two years Spencer had increased trust and reduced discrimination to a minimum. He got people working together, focused on winning the war. In 1948, he was decorated for his service with the Exceptional Civilian Service Award, the highest honor the Air Force could bestow on a civilian.

He had been told early in his work at Patterson to drag his feet on integration, but he ignored those warnings. In 1953, people he had crossed tried to take their revenge. He was accused of disloyalty and was suspended as being a “security risk.” He fought the charges and a number of people with whom he had worked provided important character references. He was cleared of all charges in 1954.

However, his career with the Air Force was damaged, and a number of people who had risen to his defense found themselves punished. Spencer and his family continued to be harassed in the community and had to move.

The family moved to San Bernardino, California, where Spencer continued to work with the Air Force, at greatly reduced salary. He finally left the Air Force in 1959, after 32 years of government service.