Roscoe C. Brown Jr. is a remarkably accomplished man. At 90 years young, he has achieved more than most could even dream about doing in 200 years of life, let alone 90.
Being valedictorian of your college class? Check. Running the New York Marathon nine times, including most recently at age 80? Check. Receiving a Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush? Check. Being a part of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen who protected the United States so heroically during World War II? Check. Brown, who graduated from Springfield College as valedictorian in 1943, is a true American hero.
Brown was born in 1922 in Washington, D.C. and his father, Roscoe Brown Sr., was a part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet” (Federal Council of Negro Affairs). Brown Jr. attended Dunbar High School and decided to go to Springfield College beginning in the fall of 1939. In order to serve his country in World War II, Brown graduated early in March 1943.
“At the end of my junior year, they decided to accelerate the instruction because so many of us were either being drafted or had signed up to go into the service,” Brown said. “So I took classes during the summer, and took classes during the fall, and I was able to graduate in March. I had already enlisted to be an aviation cadet, and they held off my call to active duty until I graduated.”
Brown lived in the still present Alumni Hall during his time on Alden Street. In his third year, his roommate was a white student named Ken McEwen (who would later become head of the Springfield College Alumni Association). Back in the 1940’s Brown experienced much prejudice for being African American, but McEwen was someone with whom he had a very good relationship. He also had strong relationships with his basketball coach, Ed Hickox, and his wife (an English professor) Gena Hickox. However, one of Brown’s biggest mentors while at Springfield was chemistry professor Dr. Charles Rutenber. Being the strongest chemistry student, Brown worked as Rutenber’s lab assistant for two years.
“When I was in the service, Dr. Rutenber would write to me and encourage me,” Brown said. “When I came out of the service he gave me several recommendations for jobs and graduate school.”
Following his Springfield College graduation, Brown immediately headed south to begin transition training and pilot training. He had orientation in Mississippi, where he met many African American college students who would join as Tuskegee Airmen. Then they headed to the Tuskegee Army Air Base for pilot training. Even during an event as monumental as World War II, Brown and his colleagues faced segregation and extreme prejudice.
“Even though my white colleagues were going into the white part of the service, I was going into the black part of the service and I knew that,” Brown said. “We had to work real hard to be successful and I just faced it as a challenge.”
Even later, after the war was over and Brown completed 68 missions (including one where he shot down a German Messerschmitt jet over Berlin) protecting his country, he still faced racism.
“When I came back [from war] I was going to fly for about a year before I went to graduate school,” Brown said. “I applied and the secretary threw the application in the wastebasket and [said], ‘Sorry, we don’t hire Negroes here.’ But that changed after a while. They always tell you, ‘Don’t get mad, get even’ and you get even by being excellent.”
The Tuskegee Airmen may not get all of the deserved recognition for their service in World War II, but the George Lucas 2012 film, Red Tails, has certainly brought some more attention to their courageous efforts. In total, 68 pilots and 4 enlisted men on the ground died during the missions.
After V-E Day, Brown was selected as the squadron Commanding Officer, a position that he held for about 30 days, as the squadron returned to the U.S. and was disestablished.
“Every day you knew you had to go up there and you knew there was a chance you wouldn’t come back, but you never focused on that because you focused on the quality of your flying,” Brown said. “You also focused on protecting the bombers that we were flying over and we wanted to stay close to them and protect them, which we did in a very excellent way.
“All the bomber pilots were white and they understood we were all black. But they realized how good we were. Toward the end of the war, they even ended up [saying] ‘We’d rather have the Tuskegee Airmen Red Tails with us than anybody else.’”
During the filming of Red Tails, Brown was a consultant for the movie. He helped the actors learn how to be pilots and even worked with the renowned George Lucas on the script. Brown enjoyed the film very much and says the message that he takes from it is, “Excellence overcomes prejudice.”
In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen collectively received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award that Congress can give to an citizen, from President George W. Bush. Those present at the ceremony represented the estimated 16-19,000 participants of the “Tuskegee Experience” between 1941-49. Brown was selected to receive the medal on behalf of the group during the ceremony.
The 300 DOTAs/widows, who were present at the ceremony, each received a Congressional Gold Medal bronze replica following the ceremony, thanks to a generous benefactor.
Even today, at the age of 90, Brown is still rightfully being recognized for his lifetime work as a Tuskegee Airman and an educator for many years following. This past December, Brown received the National Football Foundation (NFF) Gold Medal during a ceremony in New York City. The NFF Gold Medal “recognizes an outstanding American who has demonstrated integrity and honesty, achieved significant career success and has reflected the basic values of those who have excelled in amateur sport, particularly football.” Brown was indeed a good football player at Springfield College, but he was really honored with this prestigious award for his contribution to the field of education. Since the conclusion of World War II, Brown has held various teaching positions and, overall, has been in the education field for nearly 60 years.
The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II were true American heroes for a couple of reasons. One, they protected the country during one of the deadliest wars in American history. Additionally, in 1948 when President Harry Truman signed an executive order to eliminate segregation in the military, it was largely in thanks to the Tuskegee Airmen. One of the leaders of that phenomenal group of men is Roscoe Brown, someone who has achieved more than most would accomplish in numerous lifetimes.