A lesson in standing up from Col. Hubert "Hooks" Jones

Black History

Fletcher H. Wiley | 2/6/2014, 6 a.m.
Over the years, people around the nation have asked me what was it like to be a black cadet at ...
Col. Hubert L. “Hooks” Jones (center) was part of the famous Tuskegee Airman unit that flew for the Air Force in World War II. Later, he served as a professor of air science at the Tuskegee Institute.

Over the years, people around the nation have asked me what was it like to be a black cadet at the Air Force Academy; and they are right to do so since the experience at the time — forged in the midst of racial segregation and the Civil Rights Movement — was foreign to anything within my experience or culture. The situation certainly spawned a number of “interesting circumstances,” and none was more bizarre and instructive than the “Hooks Jones Story.”

The story begins in June just after the graduation of the Class of 1962. The new First Classmen from 1963 (which contained the first three blacks at the academy) were preparing to train the incoming Class of 1966; the Second Classmen from 1964 (which contained one black) were preparing to go to Europe, Asia, and Australia-New Zealand on their overseas field trip; and my Class of 1965 (which had five blacks remaining from the original six) — freshly free from its year-long shackles as doolies — was preparing for the Zone of Interior field trip.

The purpose of the six-week-long field trip was to give our class exposure to the operational U.S. armed forces with a week with the Navy, a week with the Army, and the rest of the time visiting Air Force units. While the trip was designed to be very interesting and motivational, at the time it began, we had already been away from home (including Christmas) for almost a year; and that understandable longing to get back to loved ones sometimes overshadowed the excitement of the adventure.

Because we were the largest academy class up to that point, the trip planners divided us into two 350-man contingencies — each of which were further broken down when necessary into smaller and more manageable groups. Group A (made-up of cadets from Squadrons 1 — 12) included two blacks, Bentley Plummer and Charlie Thomas; and Group B (which included cadets from Squadrons 13 — 24) had three blacks, including Robert Stroud, Arthur Beamon and myself.

We had become brothers over the year, and we sought out each other’s company and “hung out” together on a regular basis. The common culture, challenges, and quest of our people that we shared formed an unbreakable bond; and when we had any time off to relax, we generally spent it with each other — listening to R&B music, dissecting relationships with girlfriends, complaining about upper-classmen, and sharing career dreams. We all had mixed feelings as we embraced the first-rate learning conditions at the academy while our black collegiate counterparts were being vilified, spat upon, and worse at student-inspired sit-ins around the country.

America was a different place then. The U.S. Civil War had not yet been over for 100 years; and in many places in the country, the social issues over which the states bitterly battled had not yet been put to rest. Indeed, separate facilities for the races were the norm throughout the South, and discrimination and vituperation against the colored folks (as we were called back then when the “caller” was trying to be civil) were freely and openly displayed — biting exclamations to the hypocritically insidious American apartheid governing the nation.