Don't just study black history

listen to it

February 16, 2010|By Norris P. West

Like everyone else, when I think of black history during this month, the usual names come to mind: Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois.

But I also have gained a greater appreciation over the years for living black history -- stories and experiences of people you might meet in your neighborhood, at the supermarket or at the fitness club.

The fitness club -- the Columbia Athletic Club, to be specific -- is the place where I met Charles DeShields six years ago. When I got to know him, it was apparent that his life embodies so much of 20th Century African-American history. He's a bona fide American war hero, but to most people he's just an avuncular face in the crowd.

Now that I have come to know Mr. DeShields, I understand that he's part of a continuum of African-American history. He carried a torch that was passed to him. He retired from the Army as a full colonel after having earned more than 35 medals, including three Distinguished Flying Cross medals -- the highest honor a military aviator can receive, short of the Medal of Honor. He served in Korea, shortly after major military hostilities had ceased, and he also served in our most unpopular war, at the height of hostility. He spent two tours of duty in Vietnam.

In Korea, he flew fixed-wing airplanes, but in Vietnam he was a helicopter pilot. There, he often was in the heat of battle and performed valiantly, according to records, once rescuing vulnerable soldiers in a perilous spot and taking decisive actions on another occasion to protect a fleet of 21 helicopters that came under heavy fire during a sudden attack. His helicopter has been shot down, and he's lived to tell about it.

Every year, Chuck DeShields attends a reunion of Vietnam helicopter pilots to share their stories, our history. The gathering gets smaller and smaller each year as pieces of knowledge fade in the sunset. Even though the Vietnam War stories often are painful and the reunions emotional, we have to treasure the memories and find ways to capture them for generations to come.

That is why Mr. DeShields' life story is important to me. You can't tell his age when you see him at the Columbia Athletic Club, but he's almost 80 now. His experiences should be preserved. Flip through the pages of his life, and you will read how he overcame racial bigotry while stationed in military installations down South and up North, where Philadelphia police profiled him, even as he wore a U.S. Army lieutenant's uniform.

Flip through more pages, and you will see what inspired him through the challenges. You will find Alonzo "Jake" Gaither, the legendary football coach he played under at Florida A&M University in the 1950s. You'll notice the Tuskegee Airmen and, specifically, Daniel "Chappie" James, who became the first black four-star general and whose speech at Florida A&M gave Mr. DeShields a burning desire to become a military aviator.

Listen to Chuck DeShields for a few minutes, and you might be inspired, too. Like figures in the history book, he has a story to tell. This year, spend time with living black history figures such as Mr. DeShields and get a firsthand account of challenge, pain and triumph.

Norris P. West is a former Maryland resident who lives and works in Seattle. His e-mail is

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