Standing firm: ISU alumnus Quentin Smith challenged segregation and changed history.

By: Dave Taylor, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
October 1, 2012

Near the end of the World War II, First Lt. Quentin Smith of East Chicago and 100 fellow officers in the Army Air Corps were confined to their barracks at Freeman Army Airfield near Seymour, Ind.

They faced courts martial and a possible death sentence.

"A sentry told me he had orders to shoot to kill if I left the barracks," Smith, 94, recalled during a recent interview at his home in Gary, where he worked as a teacher and school principal before and after the war.

The Army charged the 101 airmen not with murder or treason but with an offense that would be unimaginable today. The mutineers were African-American and the U.S. military at the time, like much of the nation itself, was still highly segregated.

Officially the Army charged them with failure to obey the direct order of a commanding officer. With the United States at war, their refusal carried the ultimate penalty.

"The white colonel said that we should not use any of the equipment or the tennis courts of the officers club or the swimming pool after 5 p.m.," Smith said. "But when you fly all day and then eat and shower, it's 5 o'clock and you know how muggy it is down there (in southern Indiana)."

Col. Robert Selway ordered all 546 Tuskegee Airmen at Freeman Field to sign a paper agreeing to stay out of the officers club in the evenings. Most signed, but Smith and 100 others refused.

Smith, the highest ranking officer among the mutineers, remained steadfast in his refusal even when threatened with the 64th article of war, which provides for potential execution for failure to obey a commanding officer. He had not expected the 64th article to be invoked and could manage only a "squeak" in responding to Selway that he still refused to sign.

Attorney Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American on the Supreme Court, went to bat for the airmen and, after 90 days, persuaded President Harry Truman to release them. Three years later, Truman ended segregation in the U.S. armed forces.

Before the war, Smith attended Indiana State Teachers College and completed a bachelor's degree in social studies in 1940 and taught for two years at Roosevelt High School in Gary before joining the war effort.

"I thought I got a good education" at Indiana State, Smith said. He taught the children of professors and some of Terre Haute's leading residents at the university's lab school.

Students at the lab school "wanted to make me out to see if I was competent to teach them," Smith said. "Luckily, I was a reader and so I had all the background on all of the things they were doing and they found out, ‘Hey, maybe this guy does know what he's doing'."

Smith also faced discrimination at Indiana State. He played football, served on the Union Board and as vice-president of his senior class but was not allowed to live on campus. At the time, the school also barred African-American students from social functions, prompting Smith to take a stand much as he would do years later in the military. He made a lavish request of the dean of students thinking "never thinking (she) would do it," he said.

He asked for "two letters of recommendation to the best stores in town" for a fashion show and funding for a separate prom. The dean granted the request and African-American students held their own prom.

While grateful for the opportunity to attend Indiana State, Smith said he has spoken out neither in support of nor against the university throughout the more than 70 years since his graduation.

The incident "really stuck in my craw," he said. "She didn't apologize ... she was just going along with the program."

After his military stint, Smith helped change the lives of thousands of young people during a 40-year career with Gary Public Schools.

He was the first principal of Banneker Elementary School, then and now reserved for academically talented students, and developed Emerson High School for Visual and Performing Arts. He also served as the first principal of Westside High, the city's answer to desegregation in 1968. The building served as a 3,900-student "amalgamation of three high schools - worst thing you could do," he said. "The gangs had names then and I had to develop their loyalty to one school."

Smith demanded order and civility, to the point of telling security officers at football games to eject any student who refused polite requests to remove his hat during the national anthem or "put him on the ground."

Working with Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, Smith helped establish the Fund for Hoosier Excellence, which awards scholarships to minority students from throughout the state. He is also one of three surviving Tuskegee Airmen with the power to appoint young men and women to U.S. military academies.

ISU's African-American Alumni Council is seeking to honor Quentin Smith by establishing a scholarship in his name. For more information, contact Roland Shelton, vice president for constituent relations with the ISU Foundation, at 812-514-8518 or roland.shelton@indstatefoundation.org

The Indiana State University Alumni Association will honor Smith and three other ISU graduates during its Distinguished Alumni Awards program at 8:30 p.m. Friday (Oct. 5) in the Sycamore Banquet Center at Hulman Memorial Student Union. Other honorees are Bernard Glasser, class of 1947, a World War II veteran who went on to a career as a Hollywood movie producer; Noma Gurich, class of 1975, an associate justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court; and Linda White, class of 1970, president and CEO of Evansville-based Deaconess Health System.

Note: This article first appeared in the 2012 issue of "Sycamore Educator," the magazine of Indiana State's Bayh College of Education. A more detailed story appears in the fall 2012 issue of "Indiana State University Magazine." 

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Quentin-Smith/i-2WCh7Fh/0/L/053112RexvsGems-2417-L.jpg - Quentin Smith, a 1940 Indiana State Teachers College graduate who went on to serve as aTuskegee Airman during World War II and a career with Gary Public Schools as a teacher, guidance counselor and principal for 40 years, makes a point during a May 25, 2012 interview at his Gary home. (ISU/Jamil Buchanan)

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Quentin-Smith/i-sxhWpsP/0/L/Smith04-L.jpg - Quentin Smith's senior picture from the 1940 "Sycamore," the yearbook of Indiana State Teachers College. (ISU Archives photo)

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Quentin-Smith/i-KsQW4Jd/0/L/Smith06-L.jpg - Quentin Smith (standing, second from left) was one of two African-Americans on the Indiana State Teachers College Union Board in 1939-40. (ISU Archives photo)

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Quentin-Smith/i-2SQVczT/0/L/quentin02-L.jpg - Quentin Smith (bottom row, second from left) played football while attending Indiana State Teachers College from 1937-40. (ISU Archives)

Media contact and writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu