Stenographer of the Tuskegee Airmen
Callie Gentry was a charter member of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen (and Airwomen)
Callie Gentry was a recipient of the 2007 Congressional Gold Medal for her service during World War II and is still very proud to wear it
Callie Gentry, nee Odom, was born in South Carolina and spent the early year of childhood in a little town called Blackville. When Callie was 5 ½, her grandmother with her and her three sisters moved to live with their uncle in Philadelphia. Their quaint lifestyle in Philadelphia allowed Callie to avoid the harshness of racism and the culture divide that existed in other parts of the country in the 1930s.
Callie went into the military in 1945. She needed to get from Philadelphia to Des Moines, Iowa. Her route took her on a train to Washington, DC., where she hopped on the B & O Line. From the line between Philadelphia and Washington, DC, Callie and other African Americans could sit in the same cars as whites and enjoy the comforts of traveling on a train. When the train arrived in Washington, everything changed.
The African Americans on board had to move from their comfortable seats to a car behind the locomotive. The seats provided little comfort, and the lack of circulating air required the windows to be open. The black smoke from the locomotive seeped into the car and created a filthy, disgusting environment. The experience was raw and dehumanizing.
Over 10,000 military and civilian African-American men and women served as support personnel for the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. Their collective effort and passion to serve our country opened the doors for others to join the Armed Forces with equal opportunity. One of them was Mrs. Callie O. Gentry. This courageous young woman shared her memories of serving with the Tuskegee Airmen and living through an era that shaped the future for generations to come.
In 1947, Mrs. Gentry served as a stenographer at what was then known as Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus, Ohio. The base was activated in June 1942 as the Northeastern Training Center of the Army Air Corps, providing basic pilot training and military support. During World War II, it was a U.S. Army Air Forces training base. Its primary unit was the Tuskegee Airmen’s 477th Composite Group. Mrs. Gentry served as support personnel with the group for about one year.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Mrs. Gentry says that she was personally not used to the level of segregation she experienced after joining the service. “Whatever you’ve read about segregation, it was that and then some,” says Mrs. Gentry. “The Tuskegee Airmen were positively a big part of the desegregation of the military. They were the instigators.”
Mrs. Gentry refers to the famous incident in 1945 known as the Freeman Field Mutiny when Tuskegee Airmen officers were not permitted into an officer’s club because of their race. This injustice and the ensuing protest proved to be pivotal in the group’s fight for equality and respect.
“It was a ridiculous incident,” she says. “The black men were higher ranked than those that denied them access. They were officers with high credentials; higher degrees of accomplishment and these guys would not let them in.”
President Truman signed the Executive Order desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces in 1948, although it would not be fully realized until the early 1950s.
Mrs. Gentry’s experience living through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s also affords her a unique perspective on our nation’s history. “We just wanted education. We are human beings, just like anyone else, with the same accomplishments, goals and desires for education,” she says. “The myths that people are brought up with don’t go away overnight. The world’s eyes were opened. We are human. We want what everyone else wants and we got it through the civil rights movement.”
She says it’s important to acknowledge that racism still exists today in some form. People can still be resentful of the accomplishments of African Americans. Programs like the educational outreach initiatives of the CAF Red Tail Squadron and its RISE Above Traveling Exhibit are an important tool to teach, dispel myths and inspire future generations to continue to triumph over adversity.
Her view on the importance of Tuskegee veterans remains as strong as ever. The Tuskegee veterans destroyed the War Department’s prejudicial view on African American pilots and earned their place in history, according to Callie. She is very proud and passionate about Tuskegee veterans and her association with the group.