Black heroes remember old days

B-52 pilot, Black Crackers ballplayer recall careers despite prejudice

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ROSWELL, Ga. – Two authentic heroes, one an Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew more than 200 combat missions in a B-52 bomber and another an all-star baseball player of the old Negro Major League, came to the Regency Fine Art and Frames shop on Holcomb Bridge Road to share their stories.

Members of the North Metro chapter of 100 Black Men of Atlanta were on hand as volunteers to usher retired Air Force Lt. Col. Edgar Lewis and 95-year-old Black Cracker ballplayer James “Red” Moore who were available to sign books and memorabilia and reminisce.

Lewis is a legacy member of the Tuskegee Airmen, carrying on the tradition of those pilots who broke the color barrier in World War II. Lewis’ career spanned 23 years from 1949 to 1972. Lewis benefitted from President Harry Truman’s decision to integrate the U.S. military during the Korean War.

Lewis joined the Air Force after two years of college “when the money ran out,” and was about to be discharged when he got the chance to test for flight school. He passed and was accepted into the pilot training program.

“I went to Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz., and then I was sent to Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Ala., to train in the T-28 Trojan,” he said.

Asked what it was like to be a black pilot trainee in Selma in the 1950s, Lewis did not respond right away. Instead he pulled out his flight school graduation album, and began to thumb through it. In three squadrons of trainees, only three trainees were black.

“I really didn’t get a lot of harassment while I was there. You’re always going to find a minimum of problems in any walk of life,” Lewis said. “And in pilot training, you were kept pretty busy.”

Then he added, “It’s very difficult to get into trouble when you are by yourself. So I stayed on post most of the time.”

Lewis’ war came in Vietnam. As a B-52 bomber pilot, he flew three tours of duty, which would consist on average of three to four missions a week, often lasting 11 or 12 hours per flight. The plane weighed 132 tons fully loaded, of that was a bomb load of 60,000 pounds.

“We flew the C, D and F models of the B-52. That meant from the farther bases, we had to refuel in the air,” he said. “No, we couldn’t land to refuel. Thirty planes in a wave trying to spread out on the ground would be difficult. It’s easier to spread out in the air.”

Flying over North Vietnam, the most severe resistance came when the North Vietnamese abandoned surface-to-air missiles for the tried-and-true technology of World War II, flak cannons.

“That worried us more than the electronic,” Lewis said.

“Red” Moore’s baseball career ended the year before Lewis went into the military. One of the best fielding first basemen in the Negro Leagues, he competed against such legendary black stars as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.

The Atlanta native was a part of the “Million-Dollar Infield” for the Newark Eagles, where he teamed with Ray Dandridge, Willie Wells and Dick Seay. We will never know how well Moore and the other players of the Negro League really were because they were never allowed to compete.

“But I think we could have beat them as many times as they would beat us,” Moore said.

Like many of the players of the day, Moore started playing baseball right out of high school as a 16-year-old. His career lasted from 1935 to 1948, but lost four years to military service. The players of those days were never paid enough to support themselves in the off-season.

“You always had to find work when you weren’t playing ball,” Moore said. “But I loved the game. When I was a kid, we would play with a ball and broomstick for a bat.”

In 1937, the Rev. John Harden and his wife, Billie, owners of Harden’s Service Station, bought the Black Crackers. It was Billie Harden who spotted Moore as a teenager.

“Mrs. Harden picked me out, and that was how I got to play professional ball. I was boy playing with a lot of men – or older boys anyway,” he said.

They played at the old Ponce de Leon Ball Park when the white Atlanta Crackers traveled.

His biggest thrill in baseball came when he got the chance to play in Yankee Stadium

“I hit a homerun in Yankee Stadium,” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”

And how many people can say that?