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Chauncey Edward Spencer
One of three children of Edward Spencer and noted Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer, Chauncey Spencer was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1906. At the age of eleven, he fell in love with flying upon seeing his first plane over the skies of Lynchburg.
One of the most respected families in Lynchburg, visitors to the Spencer home included George Washington Carver, Paul Robeson, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Clarence Muse, Dean Pickens, Adam Clayton Powell, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, and W.E.B. Dubois.
After Spencer graduated from college, no aviation school in Virginia would admit him because of his color. One of these distinguished visitors, Oscar De Priest of Chicago, the first Black Congressman since Reconstruction, suggested that young Spencer move to Chicago and attend flying school.
Moving to Chicago in 1934, Spencer joined with a group of African American aviators in organizing the National Airmen Association of America (NAAA). Working as a $16-a-week kitchen helper in a Chicago restaurant Spencer paid $11 an hour for flying lessons and he indeed learned to fly. Later, he and a handful of companions bought the corpse of an obsolete airplane and found that by repairing its loose parts with bailing wire they could coax it into the air. With this accomplishment, they set out to stake a claim for "brotherhood" in the skies.
In May 1939, he and fellow aviator Dale Lawrence White, also an NAAA member, flew a rented Lincoln-Paige biplane--with only two flight instruments--on a ten-city tour that started in Chicago and ended in Washington, DC. Realizing that war in Europe was eminent, their aim was to demonstrate the aviation abilities of "negroes" and to lobby Congress for inclusion of people of color in the Civilian Pilot Training Program for the Army Air Corps.
Their flight drew national attention and proved that black pilots had the requisite intelligence, courage, and initiative to fly an airplane--contrary to the beliefs and opinions of most Army Air Corps and government leaders. While in Washington, DC, they met with Harry Truman and others in Congress, convincing them to support their cause.
Later, while employed by the Army, Spencer worked with Judge William H. Hastie to encourage fair treatment of African American air cadets being trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and other air bases during World War II. He encountered considerable resistance from whites as well as blacks as the Civilian Personnel Employee Relations Officer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Despite this, he persisted and made steady progress towards integration of the Air Force.
In 1948, Spencer received the Exceptional Civilian Service Award for service during World War II, the highest honor the Air Force could bestow upon a civilian. In 1953, the United States Air Force referred to his role in the integration of the military as "unique - though strangely unsung." However, his refusal to drag his feet on integration created resentment among highly-placed officials who wished to see integration fail.
Consequently, in September 1953 Spencer was charged with disloyalty and accused of being a Communist. He was relieved of his position and his family suffered great humiliation and economic deprivation until 29 June 1954, when the Air Force cleared him of all charges.
Spencer and his family would never fully recover from this ordeal. Despite ill-treatment, he continued to maintain his belief in the goodness and strength of mankind and America until his death on August 21, 2002.
- Text and image provided by Chauncey E. Spencer II, August 2006