Martin C. Evans

After Making History, Left Behind

In Uncategorized on March 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

By Martin C. Evans, Newsday, March 27 – When you see him around town, it is hard to distinguish Lee Hayes from the many retired black Long Island farm workers who came up from the South to find work, then toiled all their lives to keep their families fed.

Though he lived mostly in obscurity, Lee Hayes once was among America's best. Newsday photo by J. Conrad Williams

You can find him most days at a local senior citizen center, where $2.50 hot lunches stretch the Social Security check that accounts for most of his income. Sometimes, you can spot him in front of the down-at-the-heels home he shares with his daughter outside of East Hampton, where wild turkeys cut across his front yard.

Hayes, 88, has never had much. Over the years, he has picked potatoes on East End farms, hauled glistening slabs while working at an ice house, pushed mops at Brookhaven National Laboratory and sold life insurance. When an injury forced him to retire at nearly 80, he was still framing houses on construction crews.

But the soft-spoken, bespectacled man once was among the most skilled aviators in America.

Hayes, still hale despite years of physical work, is one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen — 996 black men who broke the military’s color bar when they were commissioned as pilots during and immediately after World War II.

Lee Hayes, second from left on top row, in a photo taken around the end of World War II.

Beginning in 1943, he apprenticed at airfields across the South, first winning certification as a bombardier before being sent to an experimental program for black aviation cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. He won his certification as a bomber pilot in January 1946, five months after the war’s end.

“I got so good I could drop a bomb into a trash can from 1,000 feet,” said Hayes, who said he once persuaded a Tuskegee instructor to give him the controls when a stiff crosswind kept scuttling the instructor’s attempts to land.

But the arc of Hayes’ life, which in his childhood had been shaped by the Jim Crow South, would also be deflected by discrimination on Long Island.

Until he came to New York in 1930, when he was 8, he and his family had lived in a Virginia hamlet still strewn with the rubble of slavery. Hayes was born in Mannboro, Va., in 1922, just 57 years and 50 miles from where Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the Civil War. Life had been strictly segregated as he was growing up.

“The school bus would go by with the white kids in it, and we would be walking,” said Hayes, who said heavy rains or winter storms would often force him to skip school altogether. “We would have to wade through streams and cut through the woods to get to school — it was five or six miles — and we would spend more time walking than we would spend in class.”

When the sawmill where Hayes’ father worked closed during the Depression, an uncle who had moved to Long Island years earlier found his father work in an East Hampton dairy, and the family moved north.

In doing so, they joined what became known as the Great Migration of 1910-30, during which 2 million blacks fled poverty and racial discrimination in the South in search of opportunities in the North. Many of these black migrants boosted their prospects by honing technical skills in factories or in the military.

Interviewed at his home earlier this month, Hayes he thought the improved schooling he received on Long Island and his technical training as an Army pilot would propel him into America’s postwar middle class. But although white World War II veterans typically were able to find good-paying work quickly on the Island, even after serving as an Army pilot Hayes found his life remained circumscribed by the color of his skin.

The fast-growing commercial airlines hired thousands of pilots in the decade after the war. But all of the Tuskegee pilots who applied — Hayes included — were turned away.

“After the war, we all put in applications with the airlines, but none of us got called,” said Hayes, who in the Army flew B-25s with the all-black 477th Bombardment Group. “I thought I had an advantage because I could really fly, that the airlines or some outfit would give me a job because I was good at it,” he added. “I was all over looking for work, but nobody would hire me.”

Blocked by discrimination from buying a house in East Hampton after his 1946 discharge, he bought a plot of land outside of town with $300 saved from Army pay. When a bank refused him a construction loan, he deeded his property to a lumber company as collateral, and with the help of relatives built the house he lives in today.

By 1948, he had married a Harlem woman, Marion Jones, who had come to Amagansett to work in a restaurant. He enrolled at what is now Farmingdale State College, hoping that a certificate in aircraft maintenance would improve his prospects with the airlines.

When it did not, he resigned himself to finding what work he could. He said he once was so disappointed over being passed over for promotions he felt he deserved at Brookhaven that he quit his janitor’s job after about five years. But he said he tried never to let disappointment over the lack of job opportunities get the better of him.

Lee Archer Hayes

“You don’t have time to feel bitter,” Hayes said. “You just try to figure out what to do next. You can’t give up.”

He said he finds much to be positive about. He and his wife, who died in 1985, raised a daughter who went to college, and a son who opened a moving business. He once encountered a black airline pilot who, upon learning of Hayes’ background, credited the Tuskegee fliers with inspiring him to seek an aviation career.

“That made me feel real good,” Hayes said, “knowing that someone else had advanced because of the sacrifices we made.”

  1. What a inspiring but sad life story! While never truly defeated by racism he seemed to be turned around from many the road blocks he faced as a black man. It’s too bad no one ever encouraged him to train other black pilots!

  2. Thank you …what an inspirational life and story.

  3. Mr. Hayes,
    I am extremely moved to my core about you being one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. Tears fill the wells of my eyes when I think of you and others being denied your dreams of becoming an airline pilot simply because of your skin color. I can only imagine your feelings of this denial. I say all of this, because I am one of those men of color who was able to become an airline pilot (American Airlines, 30 years) because of your efforts and that has since retired. You are the reason I was able to become an airline pilot. Mr. Hayes, you are truely my hero!! My heart aches for you, but my love for what you have done is undying. Thank you so very much and God bless you.

    Herman “Sam” Samuels
    Captain, American Airlines-Retired

  4. A very moving story Sad to say America didn’t give them theglory they deserved. Elizabeth Organ

  5. This is a wonderful article and should be shared with as amny as we can. I just hate that life did not dealhim a better hand, but I am thankful tha he hasn’t wasted time being bitter.

  6. read the story, have an uncle thats wants to help. he’s connected to a network of people that help tuskeety pilots. wanted me to take a ride by house and access needs. please leave contact info and i will foward it. help IS coming.

  7. How shameful this man was treated after proudly
    serving his country.

  8. What a fine and honorable gentleman who endured the racism of his era. He was determined not to allow anything to turn him around and continued to overcome. May God continue to bless, protect and watch over he and his family. This also demonstrates that racism was not just relegated to the south.

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