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Black History Month: Shaw Airmen make history

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Destinee Sweeney
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
February is Black History Month, which was first observed in the United States in 1976 to honor the accomplishments of black Americans.

“As with all our observances, Black History Month is about the contributions that a specific culture has made for American society,” said Master Sgt. Tanya Wyatt, 20th Fighter Wing Equal Opportunity superintendent. “In this case, it’s about the contributions African Americans have made whether it’s through music, art, the military, science or in medical fields.”

In 1963, African American Airmen assigned to Shaw AFB, made history when they challenged local segregation in their local school districts, changing the future of South Carolina and the generations who followed.

At the time, African American service members in the south lived between two worlds: the military, which was fully integrated, and the state, which had yet to make the same civil rights advancements.

“In 1948, President Truman signed executive order 9981, which required the military force and the federal civilian force to desegregate, regardless of where they were,” said Dr. Randy Owens, U.S. Air Forces Central Command theater security cooperation directorate country desk officer, who wrote his dissertation, titled “G.I. Joe vs. Jim Crow,” on Southern military bases influencing the desegregation of their community schools.

Owens said this placed African American service members in a precarious position where they were treated as relatively first-class citizens on base while facing discrimination in the community outside the fence.

Despite the Supreme Court declaring school segregation unconstitutional almost a decade prior in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, Sumter County, South Carolina, school districts had yet to integrate, affecting the children of service members on base.

“Shaw Heights Elementary School served kindergarten through eighth grade in the sixties, all white,” 
Owens said. “If you were a white military family living on Shaw, your kids went to Shaw Heights. If you were a black family on Shaw, your kids were shipped off-base to a Dalzell school, which was a dilapidated building that was falling apart, it was poorly maintained and poorly resourced.”

Due to the unsatisfactory conditions their children had to endure, fourteen Airmen challenged the segregation with the support of their National Association for the Advancement of Colored People attorneys and succeeded, with a desegregation ruling in 1965.

“The process of public school desegregation was a long one,” 
Owens said. “Throughout the South there were these … challenges that took place that really allowed the population to move forward. These small pockets of change were able to build change on a larger scale, and I’m so proud that these fourteen Airmen were the catalyst behind a local small pocket of change in South Carolina.”

The fourteen Shaw Airmen stood up for their families and what they believed was right, providing a better future for their children and the community as well as setting an example for their fellow Americans.