Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936, and came home to American a hero…for about a week…before he was then treated like any other black American. Unable to find work, he gave up his amateur status and earned a living as an entertainer, most famously sprinting and winning against thoroughbred horses. “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
Archie Williams was a teammate of Owens, one of ten black Americans on that 1936 USA team at the Berlin Olympics. And while he didn’t get the fanfare of Owens, Williams was already the owner of the world record time in the 400 meters, and would go on to win the gold medal in the 400 in Berlin. After the Olympics, Williams went on to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in mechanical engineering, as well as in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Engineering School at Wright-Patterson Field, as well as in meteorology from UCLA.
But as was true for the majority of blacks in America, it was a challenge to get the opportunities to get ahead. Williams was quoted as saying, “When I came home, somebody asked me, ‘How did those dirty Nazis treat you?’ I replied that I didn’t see any dirty Nazis, just a lot of nice German people. And I didn’t have to ride in the back of the bus over there.”
Williams was a graduate of Berkeley with a degree in engineering in a war-time economy that could only be described as heated. But, Williams could not find gainful employment at places like GM or GE that were hiring to keep up with demand, as he explained in the oral history of American Olympians, Tales of Gold.
Those big corporations just weren’t hiring black people. They weren’t, and who else would? Look, I had a job one summer making $5 a week chopping weeds for the East Bay Water Company. Later I thought about working as an engineer for them. And I talked to the guy down there, but he said, “Sorry about that.”
Williams had a passion for planes, and wanted to become a pilot. He eventually got a job “gassing airplanes”, which is essentially fueling the planes, and warming them up. He had to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, but he also got to fly, build up his hours in the air, and get his flying qualifications. And yet, he couldn’t get up that next rung in the career ladder, as he explained. “That was early in 1941. Again, a black guy with a pilot’s license and an instructor’s rating; he’s…well, he’s nothing. Even the guy I worked for couldn’t hire me as a flying instructor. He’d have lost all his business.”
There were apparently very few black pilots in the 1940s, and even fewer opportunities for them in America. But as is often the case, war forces people to look beyond color. The US Army had established a training center for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama, where blacks were educated at Tuskegee University and trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Williams one day in 1941 heard about the Tuskegee program, and took his pilot’s license and mechanical engineering degree to the Tuskegee Institute.
Williams began his career as a pilot instructor in Alabama, and his first students were the famed Tuskegee Airmen, whose planes were called Red Tails for the color of the tails on their P-47s and P-51s, and who went on to fighting glory in North Africa and Italy.