*As I hope you will recall, ‘Fly’ – the play that honors the Tuskegee Airmen, is currently running at the Pasadena Playhouse through February 21. I was invited to a rehearsal prior to the play’s opening, and got the opportunity to speak with the cast of ‘Fly’ — the director and writer of the play, and Joan Williams, the widow of Capt. Robert “Bob” W. Williams.
Capt. Williams, who passed away from prostate cancer in 1997, was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, and an HBO television movie on the men was inspired by him, and played by Laurence Fisburne.
Mrs. Williams is a sight to behold. At 83-years-old she is a true beauty–inside and out. And the picture and pillar of strength, I might add.
With an interesting story of her own, based on an event that occurred in 1958, I approached Mrs. Williams wanting to know what her experience was like riding on a float in the 2015 Rose Bowl parade.
“You really want to know?”
I couldn’t get my recorder turned on fast enough!
But first, the backstory.
In 1958, Mrs. Williams of Pasadena had been selected as “Miss Crown City” by her colleagues in City Hall. As a result, she was invited to ride on the city-sponsored Rose Parade float. But then city officials learned she was black and did an about-face. They rescinded the invitation, claiming the city couldn’t afford a float that year.
Now nearly 60 years later, it appears Pasadena has grown some and Williams was invited back to sit on the ‘Inspiring Stories’ float — the first float you see at the start of the 2015 Rose Parade (See video news story at the end of this article).
“Actually, they really had to twist my arm to do it. I needed to do it for my community. I needed to do it for our black community because many people didn’t know what happened all those years ago,” said Mrs. Williams.
But in an interesting twist, although Williams was sitting on the float, no one knew who she was.
Once she arrived home she said her phone started “ringing off the hook”…
“Many people didn’t see me because of where I was sitting on that float. On top of that there was no commentary.”
So let me make this clear. She held no sign. And no one (with a mic) introduced her to the crowd of cheering spectators.
“So there was all that PR prior to the parade, which was exciting. Every time I turned around someone was calling. Even ‘Voice of America from China’ came and interviewed me…This is really a big thing…and then nothing,” she said.
While I like to be as upbeat and positive as anyone else, I’d be less of a reporter if I didn’t ask, “Do you think that was intensional or an innocent oversight?”
I would’ve been satisfied, quite frankly, with any answer. I have been behind the scenes of such an event, a parade, festival. And things can get pretty intense. Things happen, even unintentionally.
Apparently, Mrs. Williams was on the same page…kind of.
“A little bit,” she responds, to the possibility of it being intentional. But she is quick to add, “But I also know how people aren’t in control. If the camera man is doing one thing and the producer says do another. I don’t want to have those ugly thoughts because they’re a downer. I’d prefer to believe it was just one of those things.”
Mrs. Williams, a cancer survivor, was married to Capt. Bob Williams for 45 years, and says being on a float at her age was pretty exciting.
Before his passing, Capt. Williams had been shopping a story about the Tuskegee Airmen around town. But he kept getting doors closed in his face.
Then he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and told he only had 5 years to live.
“Two weeks later, HBO called him and said, ‘we hear you have a story,’” said Joan.
According to Joan, at the time, we were coming up on the 50-year-annivery of the end of WWII and, (as the network told him) “there are all these stories out there about other folks. But HBO always does something a little different. [So] we want to do this show about the African American flyers.”
To say it gave Mr. Williams something to look forward to is an understatement.
“He felt energized,” said Mrs. Williams. But she was worried about her husbands failing health, and wasn’t sure he should take something like this on.
“I said, ‘Baby don’t you feel we should put this down for a little bit and concentrate on your health?’”
But the Capt. wouldn’t hear of it.
He said, “Are you kidding me? ‘Til the day I die. This is American History, not just black history. And these are heroes. When you think about what we went through,” she quoted him.
The couple first met when Robert Williams – who was from Iowa and already knew how to fly prior to the military – traveled to California while waiting to be called to Tuskegee.
Mrs. Williams says he had already been “accepted into the service,” but because they were being trained at Moten Field in Alabama, they were limited to how many students they could handle at a time.”
“While he was waiting to be called he came to California. He and his brother and his cousin. He made up his mind then,” she says, as she recalls her husband’s determination. ‘If I come through this war in one piece, this is where I am coming to live,” the young Williams said about California.
It was after he returned from the service, and finished up his studies at UCLA, that the two met.
Mrs. Williams has some wonderful stories. In the short time I spent with her, sitting in the main theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, she recalled several stories that her husband had shared with her as they walked together around the grounds of Fox Hills (Yes, the place we Angelenos now know as the Fox Hills Mall!).
Although Capt. Williams did not graduate from UCLA (I clumsily asked if blacks were even accepted into the graduation program during that time…Eeek!) he would’ve been in good company. Joan reminded me that Jackie Robinson (athlete) and Ralph Bunch (political scientist) had preceded him there. This was around 1948-49.
“My husband was a wonderful golfer, and he was on UCLA’s golf team. He and Clayton Moore were the only two blacks on the golf team and they weren’t allowed to practice with the team at Riviera Country Club and L. A. Country Club. They wouldn’t let them on the course so they had to practice separately at Fox Hills. ..Fox Hills is a mall now. That used to be a beautiful golf course,” she recalled.
“I used to walk the green with him, and that’s when he used to talk about all of these accomplishments,” says Joan.
Joan says that because her family subscribed to publications such as The Chicago Defender, The Pittsburgh Courier, and the California Eagle, she was already aware of many of the accomplishments her husband spoke of.
“That was the only way we learned about what the Tuskegee Airmen was doing because it wasn’t in the mainstream papers.”
“Being African American we talked about all of these things in our home anyway. My brother was in the 92nd with the Buffalo Soldiers.”
“I never saw such comradery,” says Mrs. Williams about the Tuskegee Airmen. And fondly recalls a time when she and her husband entertained the likes of Ben Davis and Chappie James in their home.
Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. was the first African American General in the Air Force. And Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. was a fighter pilot who became the first African American to reach the rank of Four Star General in 1975.
Mrs. Williams tells the story of how Ben Davis attended West Point (the highly competitive Military Academy in New York with alumni such as Ulysses S. Grant and George Patton), and nobody even spoke to him.
As we talked (and I was getting the side-eye from others’ who wanted equal time in the chair!), Joan reminded me of how strong we as a people are.
“People of color have been dealing with this for years. And if we let every little thing that happens get us down, we wouldn’t get up in the morning,” she says with a slight chuckle.
I couldn’t let her go before asking her a question that has been nagging me for quite some time. As a matter-of-fact, I asked this question of several people associated with the production, and will share their responses in the coming days.
What do we say, Joan, to the younger generations who may feel being black is like carrying a ball and chain, because of slavery and our past (and present) with racism?
“That’s a good question. For one thing I would want them to live their lives, but not deny where they come from. And figure out how they can go through life and enjoy it. But when the occasion rises where you have to defend, that you know the history of why these things happened so that you can defend it properly.”
ABC7 interviews Mrs. Joan Williams as she prepares to ride on the Rose Bowl float in 2015, in the video directly below.