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Quentin Smith, Tuskegee Airman and Gary community leader, dies at 94

World War II veteran Dr. QuentSmith smiles while telling stories his flight training after being awarded replacement Congressional Medal honoring

World War II veteran Dr. Quentin Smith smiles while telling stories of his flight training after being awarded a replacement Congressional Medal honoring the Tuskegee Airmen during a ceremony held at City Hall in Gary, Ind., Friday, April 20, 2012. Smith, 93, fought in World War II as part of the famed 99th Fighter Squadron. Smith's original medal was stolen when his home was burglarized last summer. | Guy Rhodes~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 17, 2013 6:41AM



GARY — Legendary Tuskegee Airman Quentin P. Smith, who later became an English teacher, school administrator and community leader, died Tuesday morning at age 94.

Arrangements are pending at the Guy & Allen Funeral Home in Gary. Smith’s memory was included in a prayer at the start of Tuesday’s City Council meeting where Smith once held a seat.

Smith was 24 when he enlisted, eventually becoming one of about 900 black pilots who trained in segregated fashion in Tuskegee, Ala., under a program started by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Prior to that, blacks in the military were allowed to perform only menial tasks such as kitchen duty, hauling supplies and grave digging.

“Black men can’t fly, can’t lead, can’t fight,” Smith said in his booming voice as he offered a history lesson last April to a gathering at Gary City Hall.

Smith told the story of the airmen after Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson presented him with a replica of the Gold Congressional Medal awarded in 2007 by President George W. Bush. That original medal was stolen from Smith in a burglary in 2011. It’s the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.

Only pressure from the NAACP pushed officials into launching the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron into action toward the end of World War II.

The squadron’s efforts, Smith said, went unrecognized despite an impressive record as a bomber escort unit. When they returned after the war, most couldn’t get jobs in the commercial airline industry.

“We’re glad as a community and as a nation, we had an opportunity to tell him how much we appreciated his sacrifice,” Freeman-Wilson said. “We’ve suffered a tremendous loss. He was an educator, modern-day hero and certainly one of the most civic-minded people you would ever know.”

The fact that Smith was elected to City Council as a Republican in the heavily Democratic city is a testament to his popularity, Freeman-Wilson said.

“He was just an icon; he was larger than life,” she said.

While stationed at an Indiana air base, Smith and fellow officers were barred from an officers club. After a protest, about 100 black officers were convicted in a court martial of insubordination.

They faced prison, but NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, who later became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, intervened and Smith and the other airmen were discharged. Congress removed the insubordination record in the 1980s, but only if the airmen wrote a letter requesting their removal. Smith never did.

He came back to Gary and taught at Roosevelt High School and later became principal at West Side where students called him “Q.P.”

Last year, Smith proudly attended a George Lucas movie about the Tuskegee Airmen called “Red Tails.”

Smith, who lost his wife several years ago, said in an interview last year that he hopes the legacy of the squadron can live on, even as so many of their ranks thin.

“We’re trying to keep this chapter in our country’s history alive, but the black community still doesn’t know about us,” Smith said. “They’re not being taught enough about it in school.”

“To be honest, I don’t know if younger folks these days care about civil rights and integration in the armed forces,” he said. “They take it for granted. They don’t know the struggles we went through.”



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