Back in the early 1940s when the U.S. Army did not accept black pilots, my grandfather, Lee Andrew Archer, was accepted into an experimental training program for black aviators at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. There, he graduated first in his class and during World War II he became the first and only black U.S. pilot to become an Ace, meaning he shot down 5 enemy aircraft when just staying alive was a miracle.
He flew with the 302nd Fighter Squadron as part of the now famous 332nd Fighter Group better known as the Tuskegee Airmen or the Red Tails – named for the distinctive red tails of their P-51C fighter planes. He named his “The Macon Belle” after my grand-mommy who was born in Macon, Georgia.
With his fighter group he flew the exceedingly high number of 169 combat missions that included reconnaissance, bomber escorts, ground attacks and dogfights (aerial battle between aircrafts at close range!).
After the war ended, my grandfather stayed in the U.S. Army and finally retired 25 years later as lieutenant colonel. He followed a distinguished career in the Army with a distinguished career in the business world. He became one of the first black vice presidents of a major U.S. company as VP of General Foods Corporation. He was a mentor for a number of black businessmen, investing his time, advice and his money into their success. After “retiring” he remained on many boards and continued giving many university lectures. Generally admired, he shared his gift of inspiration and grounded wisdom.
Lastly, Lee Archer was production adviser for George Lucas’ Hollywood film, Red Tails. It was a moderately successful movie (paling in comparison to Tuskegee Airmen by R. Markowitz) but it was incredible to see my grandfather and his brothers finally recognized on such a broadly viewed platform. Finally! Such a unique part of our history should be exposed to and known by all and especially our youth. He accrued a series of far more prestigious acknowledgements such as the Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Legion of Honor, and the Congressional Medal.
My grandfather, Lee Andrew Archer Jr., was a man of many titles. He was known as “Buddy” to his brothers and intimate friends, as “The Bear” to his sons, “Dad” to his baby girl, “Junior” to his beautiful wife, Ina, and as “G-daddy” to me and my sister. The one he was always most proud of was that of grandfather.
To the world he was a war hero but to us he was the pillar of our very large family and everyone’s personal hero. He was our very own living piece of American and Black History. He was a daily reminder that Black History is American History; that at present we walk on a path paved by everyday heroes who fought for what is basic and just – for our human rights. He was our very own living legacy: a force to look up to and live up to. Today we strive everyday towards the excellence he exemplified but to the best of our very own ability, all in his spirit.
Above all, he taught us to have an active sense of honor, justice, pride, decency, respect. He taught us that family reaches farther than blood. We ARE our own legacy and we are our community. We are responsible for each other and for our common future.