Indiana State University honored Quentin Smith, of Gary, with one of four Distinguished Alumni Awards presented during the university’s Homecoming celebration this month.
Smith was born in Texas, but at an early age he moved with his family to Northwest Indiana. He graduated from ISU in 1940 with a degree in social studies education. After teaching for two years at Roosevelt High School in Gary, and following the outbreak of World War II, Smith joined the war effort. While most of his colleagues yearned to fly, Smith had to be talked into signing up.
In the 1940s, all military planes were assigned to white pilots, so Smith flew "primary" planes, or service aircraft, and served as a flight instructor for "primaries" at Tuskegee Institute. Later, since he was too big for a fighter plane, he became a bomber pilot. It was difficult at first to assemble a full crew, though, as black pilots were not allowed to command white crews.
After spending time at Fort Knox, 1st Lt. Smith was transferred to Freeman Field at Seymour, Ind., where he made military history. Smith and 100 other black officers were arrested for defying orders not to enter the base’s officers club.
The Army sent the officers to Fort Leavenworth, but that Kansas base was not prepared to handle so many African-American detainees, so they were sent back to Freeman Field. Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP attorney who would go on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice, won the release of Smith and his fellow officers.
Two years later, President Harry Truman integrated the military but it would take more than 50 years for the Freeman Field officers’ service records to be cleared.
After Smith's military flight career, he returned to teaching and served as a guidance counselor and school principal. He earned a master’s degree in English, and became director of secondary education for the Gary school system.
Smith is a member of the Tuskegee Airman 477th Composite Group. He received the Congressional Gold Medal. He is a member of the Chicago chapter of Tuskegee Airman, Organization of Black Pilots and sits on several aviation and education boards.
Smith was unable to attend the awards ceremony due to illness, but Roland Shelton, vice president for constituent relations at the Indiana State University Foundation, visited Smith at Smith’s Gary home earlier this year.
The ISU Alumni Association presents the awards annually to living alumni in recognition of notable achievements that bring honor and distinction to the university.