AirmanLowell Steward

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In high school, Steward was interested in going to college, but the school steered him to a vocational career instead — because he was black. Instead, he went to Los Angeles Junior College until he could be accepted at Santa Barbara State College (now the University of California at Santa Barbara). He was the only black player on the school’s basketball team, and as its captain he led the team to the NAIA championship in Kansas City. But when Steward was barred from the arena there because of his race, he had to convince his teammates not to boycott the contest out of sympathy. “He had to go across the street and listen to the game on the radio,” says his son, Lowell Jr. “He told me he didn’t ever get over that.” Without him, the team didn’t make it past the semi-finals, despite being undefeated all season. Steward graduated with a business degree.

When World War II broke out, the entire basketball team decided to join the Army Air Corps (the forerunner to the U.S. Air Force); everyone was accepted but him. “The powers-that-be seemed to be saying that Negroes couldn’t fly an airplane,” he said later. “They didn’t believe that Negroes had the mental capacity to do anything other than menial jobs. I had never touched an airplane, but that so incensed me that I said, ‘Hell, I know I can fly.’” Ten months later, he was accepted into a new segregated unit dubbed the “Tuskegee Military Experiment” — about 1,000 black men and women were recruited to be trained as cooks, nurses, engineers, …and pilots. “As one of the officers in charge put it, if it doesn’t work out, it’ll be down South and nobody’ll see’em fail anyway,” Steward said later. “We’ll give ’em a chance. If they succeed, I guess it won’t hurt anything. If they fail, we’ll hush it up and nobody will know about it.” The resulting all-black fighter group is now known as the Tuskegee Airmen. And indeed Steward could fly: in all, he flew 143 missions in P-39 Airacobras, P-40 Warhawks, and P-51 Mustangs. Initially, the airmen were dismissed by white airmen as the “Spookwaffe” — but they proved so effective that soon bombers were requesting them as escorts. Steward received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and was discharged after the war with the rank of Captain. Steward settled back into Los Angeles — but despite being a decorated war veteran, he couldn’t buy a house due to discrimination — no one would give him a loan. “So he said ‘fine,’ and went and got his real estate license so he could help others who were having the same problem,” says Lowell Jr. “He was proud of his work as one of the first African American real estate brokers in L.A. County.” He spent 40 years as a real estate broker and appraiser before retiring to nearby Ventura County. Steward developed pneumonia, and died on December 17. He was 95.

From This is True for 21 December 2014