EDISON — In observance of Black History Month, the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park will feature Shade M. Lee, a Tuskegee Airman from Elizabeth. The program is scheduled for Feb. 23 at 10 a.m., and is free and open to the public at the veterans’ long term nursing facility at 132 Evergreen Road, Edison.
For his service as a Tuskegee Airman, Lee has been awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, and he was an invited guest at the Presidential Inauguration of Barak Obama. In addition, Lee has also received a Unity Award for Achievement in Public Service by the Union County Human Relations Commission. Furthermore, the Elizabeth Board of Education officially recognized him as being a role model for his determination, his ability to achieve goals, and his courage to stand up for what is right.
Lee was born on June 5, 1921, in Shady Grove, Ala., the ninth of 13 children. His father was self-taught and took many correspondence courses in mechanical engineering, architecture, agronomy, and business administration. He taught Shade to read at age three.
In such a large family, all the children had to do chores. Beginning at age four, Lee’s chore was to graze four to six milk cows along the country roads. It was lonely work, but he took books, including classics, from his father’s library to read while tending the cows.
At 17, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that provided the only employment Lee could get.
Two years later, he joined the Army. From correspondence courses he had taken, he knew radio and telegraphy, but he could not be assigned to the Signal Corps because of his race — he could only be assigned to an all-black unit.
When the all-black 553rd Replacement Training Squadron was formed, Lee joined them at Walterboro, S.C. He was responsible for repairing and ascertaining all training aircraft were in top condition. But a white sergeant was blocking flight-line workers from entering the workshops that contained the equipment to make necessary repairs. Lee consulted with a major who was an air inspector for the 1st Air Force. The sergeant and several other white men who didn’t know how to use the equipment were reassigned to work on the flight-line, while some of the skilled black servicemen were sent into the shops. A segregated army was inefficient and uneconomical, producing low morale within the unit.
Gen. Barney Giles, Vice Chief of the Air Force, visited Walterboro Air Base and was told that Lee could offer a good prospective on morale issues. After several hours with Lee, Giles returned to Washington with his notes, which became the basis for orders issued by Gen. Hap Arnold, Chief of the Air Force, to end discrimination on federal bases and assignments were to be based on merit and need, not race.
Giles’ notes and suggestions from his meeting with Lee were the same basis for President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 in 1948, which ended segregation in the military.
After World War II, Lee re-enlisted in 1948 and was stationed in Kansas, where he met the Scott brothers and their father—all attorneys. They were working with the NAACP on a very special case. They spent many times together at the local VFW Hall and discussed, argued, shared experiences, and concluded that traditions has the force of law and that such force of law was unconstitutional. That case later became the Supreme Court decision in 1954 of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education—that separate is not equal and that public school segregation is unconstitutional.
After his military service had concluded, Lee held a variety of technological jobs including being a radar technician at the Newark International Airport; resident engineer of a data processing center for Saks Fifth Avenue; marine service engineer; computer engineer, and radio frequency/microwave engineer for New York’s NBC Channel 4.
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