Celebrating Black History Month and a salute to the allies in the cause

PUTNEY — For the past few years, I've been the only white member of the board of Paige Academy, an independent, African-centered school in Roxbury, Mass.; I am also among the founding members.

It's an honor to be part of Paige's forty-year history. At the same time, I'm challenged as the representative of an oppressive, unjustly privileged group. As I learn more about black history, I search for models - white allies who resisted racism.

The example of Eleanor Roosevelt comes to mind: a white woman, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who visited the famous Tuskegee Airmen at their training program in Alabama in 1941. Although the Airmen were highly competent, they hadn't been considered for combat duty; no African American pilots had yet been accepted for U.S. military service.

Mrs. Roosevelt - who had once wanted to be a pilot herself - asked instructor Charles Alfred Anderson to take her up in a plane. Anderson, the first African American to become a licensed pilot, flew the First Lady on a 40-minute trip over the Tuskegee airfield, well documented by news photographers, and this publicity helped send the Tuskegee Airmen to North Africa, Italy, and Germany on bomber escort missions during World War II.

They were nicknamed the “Red-Tail Angels” for the red-painted tails of their aircraft and for their outstanding skill. Known for speed, strategy, and daring, these extraordinary pilots rarely lost a plane.

Bill Mardo, another white ally, surfaces in the story of baseball hero Jackie Robinson. Starting in 1942, Mardo, a sportswriter for the Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker, campaigned to end segregation in the major leagues.

Mardo urged baseball fans to join his cause by picketing stadiums and petitioning team owners to sign black players. By constant pressure, using his clout as a writer and reporter, he worked to further Jackie Robinson's career.

At last, Bill Mardo could write, in jubilation:

“Jackie...Jackie...puh-leeze...Jackie! Excited kids leaning over the Dodger dugout roof, imploring a smiling, ebony-skinned 28-year-old athlete to scribble his name on a white baseball ... on an outstretched piece of paper or on anything.

“The air so thick with excitement you could almost dip your fingers into it. Ebbets Field, Opening Day of a new baseball season - opening in a whole new way.

“Yes, yes, on this fifteenth day of April in 1947, Jackie Robinson picked up his bat and broke the chains that had imprisoned a great American game for more seasons than anyone wanted to remember.”

Now, in Black History Month, we celebrate the achievements of Charles Anderson, the Red-Tail Angels, and Jackie Robinson and recognize the many allies, from all groups and all walks of life, who had the courage to support them.

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