Graphic of A E T N Logo Graphic of P B S logo

Men and Women of Distinction: Milton Crenchaw

Loading the player…

Arkansas native Milton Crenchaw is recognized nationally for his role as an instructional aviator and pilot trainer for the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American pilots who fought in World War II. In this one-on-one interview with host Ernie Dumas, Crenchaw reflects on his childhood in Little Rock and shares the stories of his life in which he found himself on the leading edge of history. Don't miss this inspiring interview with a man whose life has been defined by breaking definitions.

TRANSCRIPT

THE MID-TWENTIETH CENTURY WAS A HISTORIC TIME FOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN BUT EVEN BEFORE THE CIVIL RIGHTS TIME OF THE 1960'S MEN AND WOMEN OF COLOR WERE MAKING PROGRESS ON THEIR OWN AND AS INDIVIDUALS REALIZING THEIR DREAMS.  ONE SUCH INDIVIDUAL WAS MILTON PITTS CRENSHAW AND BORN IN LITTLE ROCK AND SPENT HAS LIFE WRITING HISTORY AND FIRST AS AN TUSKEGEE AIR MEN AND WORLD WAR II AND INTEGRATED BASES IN THE SOUTH. IN  RECOGNITION OF HIS ACHIEVEMENT WAS WAS ENTERED INTO THE ARKANSAS AVIATION HALL OF FAME AND AWARDED THE CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL BY PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH.  A SON, A PILOT, A TEACHER WHATEVER WORDS TO DESCRIBE HIM MILTON CRENCHAW IS A MAN OF DISTINCTION.

I WAS BORN IN 1919 JANUARY THE 13.  MY MOTHER WAS ETHEL CRENCHAW, A BEAUTICIAN FOR WEALTHY WHITE PEOPLE IN THE CITY.  MY FATHER WAS A PROFESSIONAL TAILOR AND THEN HE BECAME A MINISTER LATER ON AT MT. PLEASANT BAPTIST CHURCH.

ACTUALLY LET'S GO BACK FURTHER THAN THAT.  YOU BORN IN 1919 AND YOUR DADDY WAS PROBABLY HOW OLD WHEN YOU WERE BORN?  IN HIS 20'S?

I IMAGINE SO.  HE WAS 27 WHEN HE CAME FROM MARIANNA TO GO TO ARKANSAS BAPTIST COLLEGE.  HIS FATHER WAS BORN IN 1853 INTO SLAVERY.

YOUR GRANDFATHER WAS BORN A SLAVE.

BORN A SLAVE.

IN WHERE, ALABAMA?

I IMAGINE ALABAMA BUT I THINK MY PEOPLE CAME OFF OF A DIFFERENT PLANTATION.  I THINK MY MOTHER'S PEOPLE CAME FROM MONTGOMERY ALABAMA 65 MILES EAST OF MONTGOMERY.

OF HIS MOTHER MILTON REMEMBERS A WOMAN THAT READ TO HIM EVERY AFTERNOON AND RAISED HIM WITH LOVE.  MILTON GREW UP IN LITTLE ROCK SPENDING MUCH OF HIS NAME ON NINTH STREET WORKING FOR HIS FATHER'S TAILORING AND DRY CLEANING BUSINESS.  AT THE TIME IT WAS REFERRED TO AS THE LINE AN IMAGINE REAR LINE THAT STRAIGHTED THE WHITE AND BLACK COMMUNITIES IN LITTLE ROCK. MILTON LOVED TO GO TO SCHOOL. WENT TO CHURCH EVERY SUNDAY AND HIS BEST FRIEND WAS A BOY NAMED HAROLD TORRANCE.

WHEN YOU WERE GREEING GROWING UP IN LITTLE ROCK WHO WERE YOUR FRIENDS?  WHO DID YOU HANG OUT WITH?  WHAT WAS HIS NAME.

THE ONE MY AGE WAS HAROLD TORRANCE AND HIS FATHER WAS YOUNGER AND HAD MAYBE FOUR, FIVE BOYS AND ONE SISTER, AND I COULD GO UP THERE AND EAT, GET SOMETHING TO EAT ALL OF THE TIME.

THEY HAD A GOOD TABLE THERE? FANTASTIC.  KNEW HOW TO COOK WELL AND THE FELLOW SAYS "WHAT DID YOU GUYS DO?"  WE WERE BOY SCOUTS AND HAD A MEETING AT WHISTLER CHAPEL AND IN THE PHILANDER SMITH COLLEGE AREA BUT OUR CHAPTER WAS THERE AND GO TO THE HOT SPRINGS AND DOWN ON THE RIVER AND SPEND TWO OR THREE DAYS IN THE SUMMERTIME IN ONE OF THE CAMPS, AND WE BECAME GOOD FRIENDS AND BECAUSE BOY SCOUTS WAS THE BEST THING THAT YOU COULD GET IN TO STAY OUT OF TROUBLE.

WHAT DID YOU GET OUT OF BOY SCOUTS?

ONE OF THE NICIST THINGS THAT YOU LEARN IN SUNDAY SCHOOL ALMOST LIKE BOY SCOUTS A FOUNDATIONAL HOW TO BE A GOOD CITIZEN, AND ONE OF THE NICEST THINGS ABOUT IT IS YOU DON'T FIND ANYONE IN THE BOY SCOUTS SYSTEM THAT WERE BIGOTED INDIVIDUALS AND ALWAYS THOSE THAT HELPED OTHER INDIVIDUALS AND I LEARNED THAT MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE.

AND YOU LEARNED THAT IN SUNDAY SCHOOL AND THE BOY SCOUTS AND AT HOME?

AT HOME AND I AM THE ONLY ONE THAT CAME OUT OF MY FAMILY. THE REST WERE SMARTER THAN I THOUGHT I WAS BUT AT THE SAME TIME I GOT MY 90 YEARS I IMAGINE THEY DID HELPING PEOPLE.

MILTION GRADUATED FROM DUNBAR HIGH SCHOOL IN 1936.  BUN BAR WAS OVER ONE OF 300 SCHOOLS IN ARKANSAS FUNDED BY SEARS ROEBUCK AND COMPANY TO TEACH THE INDUSTRIAL ARTS TO BLACK STUDENTS.  WITH ONLY ONE HIGH SCHOOL IN ARKANSAS FOR AFRICAN-AMERICANS DEN BAR OFFERED THE OPPORTUNITIES THAT WEREN'T AVAILABLE TO BLACK STUDENTS.  HE HAD A JUNIOR COLLEGE AND MILTION ENROLLED AND RECEIVING A DEGREE IN AUTO MECHANICS AND HE THEN WENT ON TO THE TUSKEGEE INSTITUTE IN ALABAMA.

I WENT TO TUSKEGEE NOT KNOWING ANYTHING ABOUT WHAT I WAS GOING TO DO, BUT I FIGURED IT WAS MORE THAN LIKELY SOME TIME OF TRADE.  MY GRANDFATHER AND ALL OF THEM CAME OVER AS TRADES PEOPLE SO I FOLLOWED DOWN.  I'M NOT SURE WHAT I WANTED TO BE AT THAT PARTICULAR TIME, BUT FATE TOOK OVER AND PUT ME IN THE COURSE SO I HAPPENED TO GET THERE AT THE RIGHT TIME IN HISTORY WHERE I BECAME APART OF -- FINISHED EITHER JUNIOR COLLEGE, MECHANICAL SCHOOL AND I FINISHED TWO OF THEM SO I WAS QUALIFIED TO GO INTO THE FIRST ONE.

SO YOU WENT INTO THE FIRST FLYING PROGRAM SET UP THERE AND THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN IN 1939 OR 40?

I WAS ABLE TO STEP RIGHT IN ONE OF THE FIRST CLASSES.

FIRST CLASSES SO TELL ME WHAT KIND OF TRAINING YOU GOT BECAUSE YOU NEVER BEEN IN AN AIRPLANE; RIGHT?

RIGHT.  WE WOULD GO DOWN TO GARNER FIELD AND NEXT TO MAXWELL AIR BASE AND UNIFORMS AND EVERYTHING ELSE.  WE GO DOWN THERE FIRST.  THE FIRST YEAR WE DRIVE 45 MILES EVERY OTHER DAY TO LEARN HOW TO FLY AT GARNER FIELD.

SO YOU WOULD HAVE CLASSES THERE ABOUT FLYING EVERY OTHER DAY AND DOWN TO GARNER FIELD WHICH IS NEAR MONTGOMERY I GUESS.

AND AT THE SAME TIME THEY HAD TECHNICAL SCHOOLS AND TEACHERS THAT WILL BE IN THE NAVY AND THEY HAD A PROGRAM THERE AND THEY HAD A RUN WAY THERE SO WHEN WE GOT THE SECOND COURSE WE WENT UP TO AUBURN ALABAMA TO TAKE TRAINING FROM THE FIELD.  THEIR INSTRUCTORS WOULD COME TO TUSKEGEE TWICE A WEEK AND TEACH NAVIGATION AND ALL OF THE OTHER ASSOCIATED SUBJECTED THAT YOU NEEDED FOR FLYING.

ALL OF THE TRAINING WAS WITH PIPER CUBS SINGLE ENGINE.

RIGHT.

DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIMPTD TIME YOU WENT UP IN AN AIRPLANE? WERE YOU SCARED?

ANYTHING NEW EITHER YOUR TOTALLY CRAZY AND IT'S THE EXCITEMENT OR NERVOUS WONDERING IS THIS THING GOING TO COME UNGLUED.  YOU'RE NOT QUITE SURE AND YOU LOOK AT THE OTHER GUY AND IF HE TAKES IT I'M GOING TO TAKE IT AND NOT LET THEM KNOW YOU'RE AFRAID.

DID YOU LAND THE PLANE?

NO.  YOU TAKE IT FOR A WHILE AND AFTER GETS UP THERE HE LOOKS BACK TO SEE IF YOU'RE SCARED TO DEATH OR CALMED DOWN THINKING. YOU'RE ALWAYS THINKING ABOUT IS THIS THING GOING TO FALL?  SOME PEOPLE NEVER GET OVER IT AND IF I'M GOING TO DIE LET ME DIE HAPPY SO WE DID THE BEST YOU COULD AND WHEN YOU'RE YOUNG LIKE THAT YOU DON'T PAY ATTENTION TO IT SMALL THINGS LIKE THAT.

MILTON ENROLLED IN THE PROGRAM PROGRAM AT THE TUSKEGEE INSTITUTE.  IT WAS PART OF THE FIRST CLASS OF AFRICAN-AMERICANS TO BE TRAINED AS PILOTS FOR THE ARMY AIR CORPS.  MILTION EXCELED IN THE PROGRAM AND WITHIN A YEAR HE WAS LEARNING ADVANCED TECHNIQUES AND INSTRUMENT FLYING AND CROSS COUNTRY NAVIGATION. AFTER TWO YEARS OF TRAINING AND COUNTLESS HOURS OF FLIETD MILTON RECEIVED HIS COMMERCIAL LICENSE IN SUMMER OF 41.  ALWAYS INTERESTED IN TEACHING HE DECIDED TO GET HIS INSTRUCTORS CERTIFICATE BUT TO TAKE THE TEST MILTON WOULD HAVE TO GO TO BIRMINGHAM.  WITHOUT A CAR HE WOULD HAVE TO HITCHHIKE THE WAY AND IN A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT WORLD AND WITH NO RADIO OR TV HE LEARNED THAT JAPAN HAD ATTACKED PEARL HARBOR AND AMERICA WAS AT WAR.

SO WHEN THE JAPANESE ATTACKED PEARL HARBOR YOU WERE WALKING DOWN THE ROAD --

TRYING TO GET TO BIRMINGHAM.

AND TUSKEGEE TO BIRMINGHAM.

THAT'S RIGHT.

HOW MANY MILES?

1 MILES, I DON'T KNOW.  I HAD TAKEN THE FIRST COURSE AND INSPECTOR WANTED ME TO COME TO BIRMINGHAM TUSKEGEE TO TAKE MY FIRST TEST.  I WALKED UP HITCHHIKED WHEN I GOT THERE SUNDAY AND TOOK FROM FRIDAY TO SEND TO GET TO BIRMINGHAM MAYBE 160 MILES MAYBE, AND HE TOLD ME THAT I CAN'T DO IT.  WHAT'S THE MATTER YOU TOLD ME TO COME UP HERE?  YEAH.  WE HIT PEARL HARBOR YESTERDAY.  PEARL WHAT? I WAS ON THE HIGHWAY WALKING AND I DIDN'T REALIZE THAT WAS THE SEVENTH OF DECEMBER.  I GOT OUT THERE AND WHENEVER YOU GET IN TROUBLE CALL ON GOD AND TALK ABOUT A GUY PRAYING.  ALL I DID WAS TALK TO GOD AND I SWEAR TO GOD MY VOICE WENT STRAIGHT TO HEAVEN.  HE TOLD ME HE COULDN'T DO IT BECAUSE HE'S GOING TO MIAMI TO HIS UNIT AND 20 WHITE GUYS WANTED THE SAME THING AND PLUS ME AND CA BACK AND TOOK ME UP AND I HAD TO GO IN AN AIRPLANE AND GO BACK AND GET A PARACHUTE.  THE PEOPLE THOUGHT I WAS CRAZY.  A BLACK GUY COMING IN WANTING TO RENT AN AIRPLANE.

MILTON RECEIVED HIS FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR'S CERTIFICATE THE DAY AFTER THE ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR.  WITH THE OUTBREAK OF WAR HIS FLYING SKILLS BECAME VALUABLE COMMODITY AND MILTION BECAME A INSTRUCTAL AVIATOR WITH THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN.  PRIOR TO WORLD WAR II BLACK AVIATORS WERE RARE AND COULDN'T FLY COMMERCIALLY OR IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY.  A LAW PASSED EXPANDING THE ARMY AIR FORCE AND THE PROVISION FOR TRAINING PROGRAMS FOR BLACK COLLEGES. IT WAS UNDER THIS PROVISION HE RECEIVED HIS TRAINING.  THEN IN 1941 THE WAR DEPARTMENT CREATED THE 99TH PURSUIT SQUADRON AN ALL BLACK GROUP FLYING.  WHILE RACIAL SEGREGATION ENVELOPED THE U.S. MILITARY THESE WERE THE FIRST BLACK AVIATORS ALLOWED INTO COMBAT AND FLEW IN EUROPE AND PART OF THE INVASION AND LATER AS BOMBER ESCORTS.  THE FLEW A VARIETY OF PLANES AND ASSOCIATED WITH THE P-51 MUSTANG.  FOR IDENTIFICATION PURPOSES THEY PAINTED THE TAILS RED LEADING TO THE COMMON NICKNAME "RED TAILS".

IN THE AIR OVER GERMANY ANOTHER NAZI WAS BEING SHATTERED.  YOU COULDN'T SELL PREJUDICE TO THE AIR FORCE MR. HITLER.  A FIGHTER IS A COMFORTING SIGHT.  YOU DON'T ASK WHERE THE OTHERS CAME FROM? YOU KNOW THEY'RE AMERICANS AND THAT'S GOOD ENOUGH.  THIS MAN THROUGHOUT IT WAS PLENTY GOOD ENOUGH.  AS FAR AS HE WAS CONCERNED THIS MAN COULD FLY TOP COVER FOR HIM ANY DAY.

HOW MANY AIR MEN DID YOU TRAIN?

WELL, WE WOULD SAY -- MAYBE WE HAD LESS THAN 2,000 BUT 992 GRADUATED AND LEFT TUSKEGEE GOING SOMEWHERE.

WHILE ISSUES MUCH RACISM STILL EXISTED THE COUNTRY WAS AT WAR AND RESOURCES COULDN'T BE WASTED.  FIRST LADY, ELEANOR ROOSEVELT HAD INTEREST IN AERONAUTICS VISITED THE TUSKEGEE INSTITUTE AND SHOW OF SUPPORT FOR THE EIGHTIATORS.  MILTION MET THE FIRST LADY AS SHE PREPARED FOR THE UNPRECEDENTED FIRST FLIGHT.

SHE CAME TO TUSKEGEE AND WE HAD THE PIPER CUBS AT KENNEDY FIELD AND A GRASS FIELD AND ASKED HER IF SHE WOULD LIKE TO COME AND I HAVE A PICTURE OF HER SHOWING WHERE SHE WAS GETTING READY, AND I TOOK THIS -- TOOK THE STICK OUT OF THE REAR SO THAT SHE DIDN'T HAVE PANTS ON. SHE HAD A SKIRT BUT STICK RIGHT DOWN TO THE BOTTOM WITH IT IN THERE TO KEEP IT COMING OUT.  I TOOK IT OUT AND AROUND TUSKEGEE AND BROUGHT HER BACK AND VISITED -- MS. ROOSEVELT HAD TO GET SECRET SERVICE AND SEE IF IT WAS OKAY TO RIDE WITH A BLACK PILOT.

THEY DIDN'T THINK SHE SHOULD BE FLYING WITH A BLACK PILOT.

THAT'S RIGHT.

DID YOU SPEAK TO HER.

WHEN YOU ARE EXCITED YOU DIDN'T HAVE TO TELL A LIE AND RUNNING THE CONVERSATION.  YOU JUST TRYING TO DO SOMETHING THE BEST THAT YOU CAN NOT KNOWING I WAS MAKING HISTORY AT THAT TIME.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT WASN'T THE ONLY PERSON HE WOULD MEET AT TUSKEGEE OR THE MOST IMPORTANT.

YOU MET YOUR WIFE AT TUSKEGEE.  WHAT'S HER NAME?

RUBY HOCKENHULL FROM DOWN HERE AT KERR, ARKANSAS.  WHAT HAD HAPPENED YOU HAVE BASKETBALL TOURNAMENTS AND GIRL BASKETBALL TOURNAMENTS FROM ARKANSAS, GEORGIA, LOUISIANA, AND OTHER PLACES WOULD COME THERE FOR TOURNAMENTS LIKE THEY DO AT ALL OF THE OF THE SCHOOLS AND SOMEBODY KNEW SOME OF THE GIRLS FROM ARKANSAS, FROM LOUISIANA, FROM GEORGIA, SO THEREFORE AFTER A COUPLE OF YEARS YOU JUST RUN INTO THE SAME ONES THAT YOU SAW LIKE THAT.

SO SHE WAS A STUDENT?

YEAH.

A CLASSMATE OR WERE YOU A TRAINER.

I WAS ON THE FACULTY.

YOU WERE ON THE FACULTY SO YOU WERE MARRIED WHILE YOU WERE THERE?

YEAH, I WAS MARRIED THERE AND LIVED IN THE FACULTY HOUSES.

DID YOU HAVE CHILDREN WHILE YOU WERE THERE?

A BOY AND A GIRL.  MY BOY WAS BORN -- ALL MY KIDS WERE BORN AT TUSKEGEE.

THEY MARRIED IN 1942 AND HAD FOUR CHILDREN.  AFTER THE WAR MILTON RETURNED TO ARKANSAS AND WORKED FOR CENTRAL FLYING SERVICE AND DUSTED CROPS.  HE DEVELOPED THE FIRST AVIATION PROGRAM AT PHILANDER SMITH COLLEGE WHICH HE TAUGHT FOR SIX YEARS.  A NATURAL IN THE CLASSROOM WHETHER ON THE GROUND OR THE AIR MILTION CONTINUED HIS CAREER UNDER CONTRACT WITH THE MILITARY SERVING AS A TRAINING OFFICER FROM 1953 TO 1972 AT AIR BASES AROUND THE SOUTH AND INCLUDING SILL, OKLAHOMA AND CAMP RUCKER ALABAMA AND FORT FORT.

THE PRESIDENT IN 1947 DECIDED THAT WOULD BE ONLY ONE ARMY, THE UNITED STATES ARMY, AND BACK IN '55, '54, OR '55 THEY WERE FIXING TO INTEGRATE THE REST OF THE ARMIES SO THEY SENT ME DOWN TO INTEGRATE FORTSEAL.

HOW WOULD YOU INTEGRATE IT? YOU WERE TO BE AN INSTRUCTOR.

THAT'S RIGHT.  NOT JUST BLACK FOLKS BUT PEOPLE.

YOU WERE GOING TO BE INSTRUCTING WHITE KIDS.  HOW DID THAT GO?  A LOT OF THE KIDS WERE FROM THE SOUTH.  DID YOU HAVE TROUBLE WITH IT?

NO.  I DIDN'T HAVE TROUBLE WITH IT.  I HAD A GUY FROM MINNESOTA BLACK AND HE CAME UP TO MY HOUSE AND HE TOLD ME HE DIDN'T PARTICULARLY LIKE BLACK INSTRUCTOR AND HE WAS GOING TO SEE THE COMMANDER ABOUT GETTING HIM A WHITE INSTRUCTOR BECAUSE HE WANTED TO GET THROUGH AND NATURALLY I TOLD THE GUY LOOK FELLOW I'M THE BEST GOD EVER MADE.  WHEN THEY GET ON ME IT'S LIKE GETTING ON THE NEW YORK YANKEES AND THAT STRIPED SUIT. I DON'T LOSE NOBODY BUT HE SAID "YEAH BUT YOU STILL COME FROM THE SOUTH AND I DON'T WANT YOU" IT HURT BY FEELINGS BUT IN THIS PARTICULAR AREA YOU GET EASILY HURT.

AND THIS IS A BLACK GUY?

YEAH.

SO YOU WERE THERE TWO YEARS.

YEAH TWO YEARS AND TRANSFERRED TO CAMP RUCKER BACK IN ALABAMA.

WERE YOU DOING THE SAME THING THERE?

YEAH THE SAME THING.

FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR.

FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR FOR THE NEXT 29 YEARS IN ONE OF THE ARMY CAMPS.

CRENCHAW RETIRED FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE AND SPENT A DECADE AS AN EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OFFICER AND HE HAS KEPT BUSY AND ADVOCATE FOR VETERAN'S AFFAIRS AND BENEFITS.  HE SPEAKS AT SCHOOLS AND SPECIAL EVENTS INSPIRING YOUNG AND OLD ALIKE TELLING THE STORY OF A BY FROM ARKANSAS THAT LEARNED HOW TO FLY .

AETN.org > Programs > Men and Women of Disntinction > Men and Women of Distinction: Milton Crenchaw