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McMichael: Fitted to fly

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The crowd of high school boys who converged at Indiana University must have been excited. It was May 1932, and they’d been chosen from across the state to represent a club pledged to the development of ability and moral character. The invitation was an honor. The second annual Hi-Y Day was technically integrated — among 500 participants, there were at least 20 students from clubs linked to the Senate Avenue YMCA for African American Men and Boys. The college band blared a welcome to all. Prominent citizens addressed the boys over a special lunch.

But integration had definite limits in the Indiana of the ‘30s. When the program moved from lecture hall to swimming pool, all the Black students were promptly denied access. The Indianapolis Recorder ran the story the next week: “Negro Boys Snubbed on Hi-Y Program.” The article gave the name of every boy who was excluded. Among them was a 14-year-old named Charles DeBow.

The reality of segregation hit DeBow long before the insult at Indiana University. As a 6-year-old, he took a dime to the movie theater only to have his money refused with the explanation that the theater was for whites. He raced home, bewildered. “I can see [Mom’s] face as she explained that the world I knew was really divided into two separate worlds: one for white folks: one for us, the Negroes,” DeBow said later. “That knowledge didn’t hurt then. I just accepted it as one of the immutable phenomena of the universe, like cold weather or hard work.”

Hard work was a thing his family had in abundance. His father worked as a porter in a white barber shop and his mother was a maid in a department store. Their combined salaries scraped together $50 a week. Multiple changes of address reflect the difficulty of their circumstances: in the first 14 years of Charles DeBow’s life, his family moved eight times within Indianapolis’ Black neighborhoods. DeBow himself started delivering newspapers at age seven.

But the DeBow family was resilient. Susie DeBow, Charles’ mother, was involved in a host of women’s clubs. An article in the Indianapolis Recordershows Charles and his father together at the YMCA Father-Sons Banquet, listening to a talk on what it meant for fathers to be companions of their boys. Asked to represent the boys in prayer before more than 100 people, Charles asked God “to make the boys better boys and the fathers better fathers.”

DeBow couldn’t remember when he started to dream of flying.

“Every time I watched a plane until it disappeared behind a cloud or tenement, I felt an ache in the pit of my stomach. I guess flying was a symbol of liberation, emancipation from the crowded streets and crowded rooms.”

But Indiana University was just another illustration of the limits of a world he already knew well — a world in which opportunity cost money and Black men “became elevator operators, and janitors, and porters like Dad.”

Still, he kept his dreams alive. Hope probably owed something to his evident talent: local newspaper articles before and after ‘32 rattle off his achievements in academics, sports, and leadership, as well as participation in music and drama. It also owed a great deal to his community.

There’s no brief way to describe the activities of the Senate Avenue YMCA. Charles DeBow’s recorded involvement there ranges from the Father-Sons banquet to athletics to the Hi-Y club. He was likely also present for the Monster Meetings, the Sunday afternoon forum that hosted prominent speakers from Indianapolis and across the country. In 1932, the season’s schedule included exhortations from several pastors, a panel discussion of editors and businessmen and an address from Tuskegee’s famous George Washington Carver. These meetings were intended to inspire Black youth and galvanize the community’s work for equality. They affirmed dignity and possibility in the teeth of segregation.

Related: Monster Meetings series gets a reboot at YMCA

The YMCA’s executive secretary Faburn E. DeFrantz drove much of this pursuit of justice. Naming racial discrimination and segregation as “America’s most serious derangement,” he structured the Senate Avenue branch to protect the dignity of “the little fellow” and to work for equality in all facets of life. (Sixteen years down the road, DeFrantz and an intrepid group of students would persuade Indiana University to scrap their segregated housing policy. Charles DeBow would go on to earn a master’s degree from IU.)

But such victories were a distant dream in 1932. At the second annual Hi-Y Day, DeFrantz accompanied the younger DeBow and the other students who were barred from swimming. When DeFrantz saw that the school wouldn’t yield, his concern was for the boys: “We did not need to take them that far to get them embarrassed.” Perhaps he told Charles and the others about the time he had been thrown out of a whites-only YMCA as a teenager. According to DeFrantz’s later recollections, he could have broken his attacker’s nose. Instead, he responded with a vow: “I’ll run a YMCA myself someday, and nobody’ll yell at a boy or knock him around it my Y —whatever his color or race.”

It’s hard to say whether Charles was mentored by DeFrantz or chiefly looked up to him as a leader. We do know that DeFrantz recommended Charles for Army Air Corps Pilot Training. DeBow repaid his trust with a determination that echoed DeFrantz’s own: “God didn’t fit me to be a great educator like Booker T. Washington, or a great scientist like George Washington Carver. But maybe I can fly so that nobody can ever again say, ‘Oh, Negroes are all right as janitors and handymen, but they can’t learn to fly, or fight, or be good officers.’” God had clearly fitted Charles DeBow the skills to fly. But he’d fitted him with more than that: DeBow graduated in the original class of Tuskegee Airmen and made history as one of the American military’s first Black pilots, propelled by an Indianapolis community with a history of faith and action. Thanks to that community, he had everything he needed to keep dreaming, to serve his country and to soar.

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