Before becoming one of the first African-American faculty members at Rutgers, William Neal Brown served during World War II among the famous Tuskegee Airmen that are celebrated in the recently released George Lucas film, “Red Tails.”
As a special services officer with the 618th Bombardment Squadron that trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, Brown, who died in April 2009 at the age of 90, boosted morale among the segregated African-American pilots in the U.S. Army Air Force. He was among the 300 surviving Tuskegee Airmen who attended the inauguration of President Obama in January 2009.
The first African-American military aviators in the United States armed forces, the Tuskegee Airmen served from 1940 to 1946, during an era when the military and parts of the country were segregated. Nicknamed “Red Tails” because they painted the tails of their fighter aircrafts red, the pilots overcame racial discrimination to fly missions as bomber escorts in Europe.
The aviators were celebrated for their heroic deeds, which are featured in the latest epic film by Lucas, who created “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.”
Brown’s longtime associate Suzanne Zimmer recalls the reception of the storied veterans as they rode from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to President Obama’s inauguration in Washington, DC. They traveled in 10 white buses with “Tuskegee Airmen” printed on their sides.
“On each corner, there was an airman or soldier or policeman on duty for security, and when they saw those buses, each one saluted,” Zimmer said. “My God, I could have cried.”
The grandson of a former slave and son of a steelworker in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Brown grew up in poverty. Though he graduated first in his high school class, according to Zimmer, Brown was denied the usual honor of being valedictorian because of his race. He went on to the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, in Virginia, where he excelled as a debater.
After the war, Brown earned his M.S.W. degree at Columbia University and his Ph.D. in social work at the City University of New York. He was member of the Rutgers School of Social Work faculty from 1956 until his retirement in 1989.
At the request of Rutgers Law students, Brown debated civil rights activist Malcolm X on the subject of integration in 1961. The debate was held in the auditorium of the Rutgers School of Pharmacy, then in Newark, and lasted over two hours.
Years later, Brown remembered the fiery Malcolm X with respect. “I think he's not only an unusual, but a very bright guy,” Brown said in a February 2005 interview for the Rutgers Oral History Archives. “I liked him very much. He didn't have the benefit of education. He had no education beyond what he got on the streets of New York, but he has parlayed it. He used what he learned, wherever he learned it.”
Brown wasn’t the only "Red Tail" with ties to Rutgers. Rutgers alumnus Walter G. Alexander, II enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in 1944 and trained at Keesler and Tuskegee army airbases as a fighter pilot. But World War II ended before he could be deployed. The mechanical engineering graduate later became a distinguished dentist in New Jersey. He was interviewed for the Rutgers Oral History Archives in November 2009. Click to learn more about Dr. Alexander.