When Quentin Smith graduated from Washington High School in East Chicago in 1936, few young people went on to college. Those who did often had to work hard for the opportunity – very hard.
Members of a local art club believed in Smith enough to award him a $75 scholarship. While equivalent to more than $1,200 in today’s dollars, the total cost of a college education was much more – even in the midst of the Great Depression – so Smith went to work in a brick plant.
“I worked 12-hours-a-day-seven-days-a-week until I ran across a fella who was a foreman,” Smith recalled. “He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I said, ‘I’m working to go to school.’ He said ‘You won’t make it … You’ll be dead.”
Smith hadn’t realized that brickmaking in those days brought with it a high risk of silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhalation of silica dust.
He had worked at the brickyard for nine months and saved enough money to go to college so he applied to Indiana State Teachers College and was accepted. Arriving in Terre Haute in late summer 1937, Smith was excited to be finally attending college. His excitement was heightened when he learned the college had just built a new residence hall for men and was less than 80 percent filled.
“But we couldn’t live in it,” he said. “They wouldn’t let us live in the dorm … because we were black. “That stuck in my craw pretty good.”
Smith found lodging in the basement of a wealthy family’s home on South Center Street, a few blocks from campus, in exchange for tending the home’s furnace. In those days, that involved the dirty job of shoveling coal to ensure the boiler always had an ample supply of fuel.
“When I walked to school, policemen would stop me and say, ‘What are you doing here, boy?’ and that happened on a regular basis,” Smith said. “They got to where they knew me but they did it anyway.”
It wasn’t the first time Smith had encountered discrimination. His high school had segregated proms and he felt he had to achieve a higher standard than white students in order to play clarinet in the school’s band because he didn’t have an instrument of his own. Determined to take advantage of as many college opportunities as he could, Smith signed up for band even though he still didn’t own an instrument.
“You signed up for a college band and you don’t own a horn?” the band director said.
“I felt ashamed,” Smith said. “It was the same thing I had gone through five or six years ago.”
When the band played at football games, Smith decided he was up for the next challenge.
“I can beat those guys,” the six foot tall, nearly 200-pound young man thought, though he had never played football.
The determined Smith tried out and made the team but decades before college sports – and the rest of America – would be fully integrated, he and a handful of African-American teammates couldn’t play when the Sycamores traveled to Eastern Kentucky and were not allowed to stay with the rest of the teammates when they played at Illinois State Normal School.
Still, Smith vowed to be as active as possible in college life. He served on the Union Board and won election as vice president of his senior class. Then something else happened that would forever stick in his craw.
“We’re going to have a nice time at the prom,” he told Herb Klaussmeier, senior class president when they chatted one day.
“Quentin, but colored (students) can’t come,” Klaussmeier said.
That revelation jolted Smith, but once again he was determined to overcome prejudice and vowed to fight for at least a separate prom, as he had enjoyed in high school.
He made a lavish monetary request of the dean of students, “never thinking (she) would do it,” he said.
He asked for two letters of recommendations “to the best stores in town” for a fashion show as well as funding for a separate prom. The dean granted the request and African-American students held their own prom.
While grateful for the opportunity to attend Indiana State, Smith said he has spoken out neither in support of nor against the university throughout the more than 70 years since his graduation.
The incident “really stuck in my craw,” he said. “She didn’t apologize and say, ‘This is my job, I’ve got to do it.’ She was just going along with the program.”
When it came to academics, there was no discrimination at Indiana State – at least not officially.
“I thought I got a good education” at Indiana State, Smith said. He taught the children of professors and some of Terre Haute’s leading residents at the university’s lab school.
But there was an underlying culture of prejudice in the Terre Haute of the 1930s and students at the lab school “wanted to make me out to see if I was competent to teach them,” Smith said. “Luckily, I was a reader and so I had all the background on all of the things they were doing and they found out, ‘Hey, maybe this guy does know what he’s doing’.”
After college: Discrimination and the threat of execution
Upon graduating from Indiana State in 1940, Smith taught Latin for two years at Roosevelt High School in Gary, and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 after the outbreak of World War II. He chose to enlist in order to choose his branch of service after his brother had written him about experience as an infantryman in Europe – crawling in the mud with bullets flying overhead.
He learned to fly at a private black school in Chicago – but it took two instructors to train him.
The first instructor “was about as big as my finger and he was afraid I was going to kill him,” said the burly Smith. “He never let me get the feel of the rudder when I gave it the gas. He wrote me up to be washed out.”
Then another instructor stepped forward – a young woman who had also graduated from Indiana State, Willa Brown, ’31, who had asked Smith months before if he wanted to learn to fly.
“Quentin, you can fly but you’re not wrestling King Kong. You’ve got to have coordination,” Brown said, promptly demonstrated her own skills as the nation’s first black aviatrix.
“She did acrobatics at 2,500 feet and the plane never left 95th and Halsted,” Smith said, chuckling at the memory. “She said, ‘You’re going to fly or you’re going to die today.’”
Smith learned all right. In fact, he became quite skilled as a pilot but encountered a problem that prevented him from captaining fighter planes. His six-foot body was too big to fit in the cockpit of the P-51 Mustang or other fighter planes of the day. The Army found a solution and sent him Tuskegee, Ala., to train cadets in the all black Tuskegee Airmen
Smith learned to fly the B-25 bomber and was made a bombardier only to encounter still more discrimination. The Army would not allow white navigators and bombardiers to serve under a black pilot and it took five months to train black men for those roles.
Finally, Smith – now a first lieutenant – and a full crew were shipped to Godman Field at Fort Knox, Ky., but the airfield’s runways were too small to accommodate bomber planes so the Army reassigned Smith and his men to Freeman Field in Seymour, Ind. There, Smith and other black officers of the Tuskegee Airmen would make military history.
“A sentry told me he had orders to shoot to kill if I left the barracks.” — Quentin Smith
The white colonel said that we could not use any of the equipment or the tennis courts of the officers club or the swimming pool after 5 p.m.,” Smith said. “But when you fly all day and then eat and shower, it’s 5 o’clock and you know how muggy it is down there (in southern Indiana).”
So Smith and the other black officers dared to try to enter the officers club, only to be turned back. They faced swift disciplinary action and were confined to their quarters.
“A sentry told me he had orders to shoot to kill if I left the barracks,” Smith said.
The Army charged the 101 veteran airmen with failure to obey the direct order of a commanding officer. With the United States at war, their refusal carried the ultimate penalty.
Col. Robert Selway ordered all 546 Tuskegee Airmen at Freeman Field to sign a paper agreeing to stay out of the officers club in the evenings. Most signed, but Smith and 100 others refused. That’s when the situation turned grave.
Smith, the highest ranking officer among the mutineers, remained steadfast in his refusal even when threatened with the 64th article of war, which provides for potential execution for failure to obey a commanding officer. He had not expected the 64th article to be invoked and could manage only a “squeak” that he still refused to sign in responding to Selway’s order.
Thurgood Marshall, a young attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who later became the first African-American on the Supreme Court, went to bat for the airmen. After 90 days, Marshall persuaded President Harry Truman to release them. Three years later, Truman ended segregation in the U.S. armed forces.
“That’s how we changed the military,” Smith said.
Return to education
After his military stint, Smith helped change the lives of thousands of young people during a 40-year career as a high school Latin teacher, guidance counselor and principal with Gary Public Schools.
He was the first principal of Banneker Elementary School, then and now reserved for academically talented students, and developed Emerson High School for Visual and Performing Arts. He also served as the first principal of Westside High, the city’s answer to desegregation in 1968. The building served as a 3,900-student “amalgamation of three high schools – worst thing you could do,” he said. “I had to develop their loyalty to this one school.”
Smith demanded order and civility, to the point of telling security officers at football games to throw out anyone who refused polite requests to remove his hat during the national anthem or “put him on the ground.”
Working with Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, Smith helped establish the Fund for Hoosier Excellence, which awards scholarships to minority students throughout Indiana, and he is one of three surviving Tuskegee Airmen with the power to appoint young men and women to U.S. military academies.
Smith will be honored during Homecoming weekend with the Distinguished Alumni Award from the ISU Alumni Association. ISU’s African-American Alumni Council has made Smith an honorary life member and is seeking to establish a scholarship in his name. For more information, contact Roland Shelton, vice president for constituent relations, at 812-514-8518 or email@example.com.
Ed.’s Note: Quentin Smith died on Jan. 15, 2013.
Dave Taylor is director of media relations at ISU.