Wendell Freeland was a member of the famed group of African American WWII flyers we now call the Tuskegee Airmen. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1943 as a student at Howard University. A bright and ambitious student who grew up in a poor, segregated neighborhood in Baltimore, Wendell entered military service not so much to fight for his country but to advance himself and stop the fascist takeover of Europe.
Contemplative and intellectual, Wendell didn’t take to Army life, especially the racism that pervaded it. Wendell was a lieutenant, a bombardier on a B-25 with the 477th Bomb Group. But, despite his rank, he remained a second-class citizen in Army. “I never spoke with a white officer. They never spoke to us, unless to bark an order.” He was arrested twice for defying the Army’s strict segregation policies.
The second arrest occurred at Freeman Field, Indiana, when Wendell and other black officers entered the all-white officers’ club and waited to be served. When Wendell refused to sign, read, or even acknowledge the regulation strictly separating white and black officers, he was charged with mutiny, a crime punishable by execution. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall eventually ordered the charges to be dropped for most of the men, including Wendell. The Freeman Field Mutiny was an early blow against official segregation in the armed forces, an important step in the Civil Rights Movement.
On March 5, 2012, Wendell Freeland met with us at his law office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The interview is a production of the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative, in partnership with the Veterans Breakfast Club. Historian Todd DePastino conducted the interview, audio and video by Kevin Farkas. Photographs: Andy Marchese.
Wendell Freeland is remembered as a man who grew up in the segregated poverty of Baltimore, but rose through education and determination to become one of Pittsburgh’s most important citizens.
In this deeply personal audio story recorded by the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative, in partnership with the Veterans Breakfast Club and edited by Anna Samuels, listen as Wendell Freeland describes his early years of schooling and his military experience as a Tuskegee Airman.
Transcript provided courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center. Special thanks to Melissa E. Marinaro and Kevin Wagner.
The Final Story
Wendell Freeland / Tuskegee airman, lawyer, pioneering civil rights leader
By Torsten Ove, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wendell Freeland, a respected lawyer, pioneering civil rights leader and proud member of the Tuskegee airmen of World War II fame, died early Thursday morning after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 88 and lived in Shadyside.
Mr. Freeland, former chairman of the board of directors of the Urban League of Pittsburgh from 1962 to 1967 and a former senior vice president of the national board, was at the forefront of the civil rights movement here in the 1960s.
“I don’t think there’s any part of African-American history in this city that he wasn’t a part of,” said Lynne Hayes-Freeland, his former daughter-in-law. “He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk.”
A product of segregated schools in his native Baltimore, he took on such legal cases as integrating the Highland Park pool while challenging local companies to hire blacks and urging African-Americans to develop the skills to land good jobs.