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William A. Colbert, Jr., 1920-2015

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William A. Colbert, Jr., 1920-2015

CUMBERLAND — William Augustus Colbert Jr., 95, passed away peacefully on Monday, June 1, 2015, at the Western Maryland Regional Medical Center.

Despite being in declining health over the years, Mr. Colbert would always cheerfully say, “Any better and I’d be twins…” He is now joined with his beloved wife, Vivian, who transitioned on Sept. 9, 1999.

Mr. Colbert was born on April 9, 1920, in Annapolis, to the late William Augustus Colbert Sr., and Ella Stansbury Colbert. The last survivor of this family unit, he was the second youngest of five children, who included Bertha, Beatrice, Connie, and Astor. Often Mr. Colbert spoke of his paternal grandmother, who was a freed slave. Reportedly, his paternal grandfather had been the slave master.

Having attended Anne Arundel County public schools, Mr. Colbert graduated from Wiley H. Bates High School. Mr. Colbert worked in the Baltimore shipyards and eventually enlisted with the Civilian Conservation Corps, started under President Roosevelt. Mr. Colbert was stationed in Allegany County, Maryland at the Green Ridge Camp, where he met and married his wife, the late Vivian Lee Colbert. To this union was born one son, William Augustus Colbert III.

Mr. Colbert was a United States veteran, having served with distinction, as a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. When World War II began, as was reflected in American society and prevailing law at the time, the U.S. military remained racially segregated. Hence, most African-American soldiers and sailors were restricted to labor battalions or other support positions. Unfortunately, there was a belief that blacks were inferior. In fact, at the conclusion of World War I, a 1925 Army War College study concluded that “Negroes were subservient, mentally inferior, and barely fit for combat.” Historical records document that service in the U.S. Army Air Corps had been limited to white personnel from its inception in 1907, until near the end of the 1930s.

In 1939, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took aim at the military’s segregationist policies. African-American newspapers and civic groups took up the call to bring about change. There began a public campaign to integrate the armed forces. In 1941, a Howard University student petitioned the U.S. courts to be accepted into training for the Air Corps. Justice prevailed and under the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, a segregated unit was created on the grounds of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Known as the “Tuskegee Experiment,” those who participated called it such because the belief was that these black aviators were supposed to fail. However, as evidenced by archives in the National Museum of the Air Force and testament to the brave men who like Mr. Colbert, participated — African-Americans — if given equal opportunities and training, could fly in, command and support combat units. Their heroic missions were epically recorded and have been highlighted in Hollywood movies, the most recent being “Red Tails.”

Mr. Colbert prevailed in this endeavor. He has been quoted to say, “all my life, I wanted to fly,” and that is exactly what he did. He traveled to the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., to begin his service. Months later, his wife Vivian and son “Little Billy” followed. During this time of segregation, the family was forced to ride in the back of a coal engine fired train. Mrs. Colbert was expecting, but unfortunately upon her arrival in Alabama, she lost the child. There would be no other children.

Mr. Colbert graduated from the Tuskegee program on Feb. 1, 1945, and honorably served his tour of duty. Ironically, upon his discharge, as a trained flight officer, one piece of Mr. Colbert’s memorabilia contained a release letter of recommendation, praising his war service and recommending him to work as a store stock clerk in Baltimore. This is where the family lived for a period of time, before returning to Cumberland.

Mr. Colbert’s name will forever be in history as a Tuskegee Airman; serving among those who supported their country with distinction in combat. These men of valor contributed to the eventual integration of the U.S. armed services. On May 15, 2015, Mr. Colbert was awarded the country’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, by Sen. Ben Cardin, for his service as a member of this distinguished group of men and women. This program took place at the Allegany County Nursing Home with numerous local, county, and state officials in attendance.


Cumberland Times-News

On May 21, 2016 William Colbert was posthumously honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Allegany County, Maryland NAACP Branch 7007. The following excerpt is from a biography which appeared in the ceremony program. It focus upon his service and leadership in the community: "Mr. Colbert took a very active role in the local African-American community. As a member of the Fulton Myers Post No. 153, Mr. Colbert served on the Americanism Committee of the Mountain District American Legion in 1946, the only African American serving on the district level. In 1949 he was part of a group of African American citizens who organized a playground association to oversee both the Carver recreational activities and the Pine Avenue Playground activities. Amongst his roles in the 1950s were the director of social action and world service of the Young Adult Fellowship of the McKendree Methodist Church, financial secretary and Esteemed Leading Knight of Fort Cumberland Lodge 176, IBPOE of W., and the chairman of the NAACP Labor and Industry Committee. He frequently hosted community activities and judged local contests, principally in the Pine Avenue Playground Association. In the 1960s and beyond, Mr. Colbert and his wife, Vivian, frequently hosted association meetings in their home, conveniently located across the street from the playground. For many of those years, Mr. Colbert served as the president of the association. As much as Mr. Colbert deserved the recognition of his country for his heroism, he deserves the recognition of his community for his stewardship." --Allegany County, Maryland NAACP Branch 7007

Photograph - William Colbert and his wife Vivian


Collection Location:
Allegany County, Maryland

African Americans, History; Allegany County (Md.), History.

Allegany County (Md.), 1890-2008

Western Maryland Regional Library
100 South Potomac Street
Hagerstown, Maryland 21740

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