Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Windham’s famed ‘Tuskegee Airman’ a genuine champion for equality

Fred Williams dies at 98, was Maine’s first black attorney

By Ed Pierce

As a trailblazing member of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, Fred Williams of Windham wasn’t content to let racism stop him from achieving his dreams. As the first black attorney to ever practice law in Maine, a former Windham Town Council member, a Baptist minister and a law professor at Saint Joseph’s College, Williams continued to shatter stereotypes right up until his death last weekend at the age of 98.

Windham's Fred Williams is 
shown during his training as a
Tuskegee Airman during World
War II. The 98-year-old veteran
went on to a long and distinguished
career becoming the first black attorney
to practice law in Maine, serving on
the Windham Town Council and
teaching law at St. Joseph's College. 
Williams died last weekend at the 
Maine Veterans Home in
Scarborough. COURTESY PHOTO    
Born in 1922, Williams dreamed of someday attending flight school and was the first member of his family to ever be issued a birth certificate. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps upon graduation from high school in New York City, but because of the enforced segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces at that time, Williams was assigned as a cadet in a new pilot training program for African Americans at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Nearly 1,000 black pilots and about 15,000 black air support personnel trained in the program and became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the only black pilots to fly combat missions during World War II. They flew more than 15,000 individual missions in North Africa and Europe during the war, earning more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses for valor and paving the way for the eventual integration of the U.S military. 

"I wanted to be in a bomber, especially a B-17,” Williams told members of Windham’s American Legion Field-Allen Post and VFW Post 10643 during a memorable visit with local veterans at the Windham Veterans Center in 2017. “It was hell getting in, but we were proud.”

Williams told the audience how the Tuskegee Airmen never saw their race as an impediment or barrier to defending their nation in wartime.

He hailed the decision by President Harry Truman to desegregate the U.S. military in 1947 as monumental to achieving equality in the American’s armed forces.

“It’s one Army, one Navy,” Williams said. “It all shows we are one nation. Greek American, Japanese Americans, that’s race, not Americans. Color is not a race. White is not a race. Black is not a race, it’s a beautiful color.”

Williams was recalled to military service for the Korean War and then returned to New York City once he was discharged, where he studied and earned degrees from the City College of New York and the New York Law School. He also worked as a U.S. Federal Treasury Department agent.

Moving to Maine, he passed the bar exam and in doing so, Williams became the first black lawyer ever in the state in 1969, beginning first as an attorney for Casco Bank and then going on to launch his own private practice. Later he served as the president of the Bar Association for the State of Maine.

Making his home for decades in Windham with his wife, Laura, and their four sons, he was elected to serve on the Windham Town Council in 1971 and also was a proud member of the Windham Lions Club, where he eventually served as a district governor for the Lions International organization.

Fred was one of only two Tuskegee Airmen I have ever met and that, in itself, was certainly an honor,” said Willie Goodman, VFW Post 10643 commander. “Fred was an engaging man with a twinkle in his eye and was very passionate about what he believed in.  Fred was proud of what he accomplished in the military and as a lawyer in Maine.  I feel honored to have had a special friendship with Fred and I am thankful and happy for the visits my wife and I had with him that we'll always remember.”

David Tanguay, adjutant of the American Legion Field-Allen Post 148, said Williams was a charismatic life figure who was honored to become an honorary member of the American Legion post in Windham.

“I recall a veterans coffee meeting one Wednesday when Fred dropped in.  He captivated the veterans with his stories of the Tuskegee Airman during World War II and Korea and made a larger-than-life impression on all,” Tanguay said. “I was impressed with his varied care path from military pilot to lawyer to Town Council member to advocate in the community. He will be missed." 

Never wavering on his commitment to civil rights or forgetting his family’s social justice struggles when he was young, Williams marched in Selma, Alabama in the1960s with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and championed equality, justice and liberty for everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity.

He taught Business Law at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish for many years and spent his final days at the Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough.

Williams is survived by his four sons and their wives including Manuel (Jill), Fredrick, II (Roxanne), Keith (Arlene), and Kenneth Williams; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. His wife Laura passed away in 1988.

Funeral services for Williams will be private. <

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