In Memoriam: Leslie A. Williams, Former Tuskegee Airman

Photo of Les Williams
Williams at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama

Leslie Williams, JD ’74 (BA ’49), passed away on March 30, 2015. He was 95. Williams was a member of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen and graduated with the first African-American bomber pilot group. His obituary can be found here. Below is a profile of Williams originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Stanford Lawyer magazine.

Leslie Williams remembers a time when segregation and overt prejudice were widespread in America, a time when he was almost lynched while driving with his young family across the Nevada border to California (the military uniform he was wearing only just saving him from the mob), a time when he had to literally tap dance his way into the Army Air Corps.

He also remembers vividly how when he returned to civilian life in 1947 after five years of military service, people didn’t believe—couldn’t believe—that there was such a thing as the African-American pilots group known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

 “They could not imagine a group of black men flying in combat, flying bomber planes,” says Williams ’74 (BA ’49), recalling his service with the Tuskegee Airmen whose successes during World War II helped to bring about the desegregation of the military service. “Folks thought I was making up stories. So I stopped talking about it.”

Today, no one doubts the stories Williams recalls. Last spring after more than half a decade of silence, the U.S. Congress bestowed upon Williams and more than 300 fellow Tuskegee Airmen its highest civilian honor—the Congressional Gold Medal.

“It was very gratifying, and President Bush said all the right things. He did admit that we suffered many indignities and endured a lot of discrimination. But it was so late,” says Williams, who will celebrate his 89th birthday this August. “I kept thinking about all the guys who have died since the end of the war and are now gone.”

Williams grew up in a middle-class family in a nice area of San Mateo, where his parents owned a successful cafeteria. “It was always busy in there,” he recalls. “And it employed 20 or so staff; it was one of the reasons so many blacks came to San Mateo.”

The Great Depression changed all that. The family business closed and money was tight. By the time Williams graduated from high school he had to find a way to pay for college tuition. He turned to his passion—tap dancing—and opened a small studio to finance his studies. He graduated from San Mateo Junior College in 1939 but liked teaching dance so much he kept the business going. Then Pearl Harbor was hit. Williams joined his friends—all white—in applying for the Army Air Corps.

“I wanted to serve. I was very patriotic,” he recalls, “And I didn’t want to get drafted because I thought that as a black man I’d be drafted as an infantryman. And I’d seen so many infantrymen after WWI with amputated limbs. Dancing was my life. I thought—I’d rather crash and die than wind up unable to dance. So I set my sights on flying.”

His application was never even processed and he was soon drafted into the lowest level of service: the quartermasters.

To keep his spirits up, he joined fellow quartermasters in a dance troupe—and they were soon performing for officers and visiting dignitaries. It was after one performance that a general congratulated Williams on the show and asked if he could help him in any way. “I immediately said that I wanted to be a pilot,” he recalls.

By the following week, Williams was on his way to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama where an experimental training program for “negroes” had just been established. The military, like much of American society, was segregated and African Americans had not been allowed to fly. The racism that Williams encountered from the white flight instructors was fierce, and the Tuskegee Airmen had to endure a lot of abuse to get through their training.

“These guys were just plain mean. They treated us like dirt,” he says of the instructors. And the establishment supported the mistreatment of the African-American servicemen with strict segregation and institutional inequality. “We were barred from the white officers club, which was a very nice facility, and were told to make do with ours, which was an old barrack with a ping pong table. We couldn’t gather in groups of more than three. We had to salute white officers, but no one could salute us. We weren’t even permitted to walk across the white officers’ baseball field. It was just plain ridiculous,” he says.

Williams earned his wings in 1943 when he graduated with the first African-American bomber pilot group. But by the time the full (African-American) cockpit crew was trained and ready for combat, WWII was over. So Williams missed the opportunity to fly in overseas combat.

Photo of Les Williams with plane
Williams and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen ready for take off

Williams left the Army Air Corps in 1947, just one year before President Truman ordered its desegregation, opting instead to return to California and his dance studio with his young family. He earned his BA from Stanford in 1949 but continued teaching dance. “I loved to dance and I loved teaching,” he says.

Williams changed track in 1971 when he set his sights on law school—a move, he says, that was made in response to his son. “I had money saved for my son’s college education. And when he told me he didn’t want to go to college, I said fine then I’ll go,” he says. “I ran a successful dance studio, but I heard people say oh yeah, he’s black so he can dance. And I resented that. So I wanted to go back to school to become a lawyer.”

Encouraged by Stanford Law School’s assistant dean at the time, Judge Thelton Henderson, he began his legal studies in 1971—just six years after the first African-American student graduated from SLS. He describes law school as one of his toughest hurdles, made more difficult by his age and his color. He was 55 years old with a family to support and, he remembers, he had to rush off campus each afternoon to continue work at the dance studio. And hitting the books after so many years out of school was a challenge that was made more difficult because he wasn’t part of a study group. But again—he persevered and went on to practice law for some 30 years.

“Stanford was so hard. I had to study night and day just to stay above water,” he says. “But I’m glad I stuck with it.” SL