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Two chiefs find acceptance, opportunity in Air Force

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kelley Stewart
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
He grew up in the South when segregation was the law of the land.

He remembers seeing “Whites only” signs and attending George Washington Carver School, an all-black school, until desegregation was enforced in 1969 and he was bused to the “white school.”

His family also had a cross burned in their yard.

He remembers his father helping search for three civil-rights workers who were murdered near his hometown of Philadelphia, Miss. The three men, trying to register black voters in the state, were arrested and turned over to the Ku Klux Klan. They were then beaten and murdered.

Now, Chief Master Sgt. Angelo Wilson, 47, is the command chief master sergeant for the 100th Air Refueling Wing.

While Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Richardson didn’t grow up around such overt racism in Denver, he, too, has felt its sting. The 352nd Special Operations Group command chief master sergeant remembers people calling out racial slurs as they drove by or name-calling during fights at school.

Chief Wilson joined the Air Force while attending college because he wanted to do something different and his father and brother had both served in the armed forces.

Chief Richardson grew up with a lot of military “brats” from Lowry Air Force Base and Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver. The 45-year-old chief said he admired their lifestyles, the impression of equal opportunity and the educational opportunities, so he decided to join.

Chief Richardson said to get his mother to sign his enlistment paperwork, he promised her he’d get his education. He has since completed two associates’ degrees, one bachelor’s degree and one master’s degree.

Both chiefs agree they felt there was more equal opportunity in the military than in the civilian sector when they joined.

“As a young black man, I was able to enter into a world where I would be evaluated on what I brought to the table versus the color of my skin, ” Chief Richardson said.

He pointed to the fact his friends’ fathers were Army sergeant majors and Air Force senior master sergeants.

“They were doing pretty well,” he said.

Basic training was the first time Chief Wilson experienced being treated differently than he was used to growing up.

“For the first time in my life, I felt the people in charge didn’t view me as a black person. They just viewed me as part of the team,” he said.

Both chiefs remember there not being a lot of minorities in the Air Force when they joined. However, over the years that has changed -- especially in the officer corps.

“The biggest change I’ve seen is in the officer corps,” Chief Wilson said. “The first black wing commander I saw was in 2001.”

Chief Richardson said as an airman first class he rarely saw a black squadron commander and it was quite rare to see a black wing commander.

“I would do a double take when seeing a black major or lieutenant colonel, and then they were usually aircrew,” he said.

Discrimination, whether overt or covert, is also not tolerated in the Air Force. The military takes these types of complaints very seriously.

“It won’t be tolerated,” Chief Richardson said. “I worked for a commander who made it clear it wouldn’t be tolerated. I think that’s great. Acceptance now is less and less an issue.”

The military can do nothing but benefit from these advances in society, the chiefs said. Both chiefs referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. One line in this speech says: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

“When I go back to my home town today, there is such a vast difference,” Chief Wilson said. “I think the Air Force as a whole benefits from that because the young people coming in don’t bring a lot of prejudices that we brought in or the experiences that we brought (in with us).”

Chief Richardson believes young minorities today should expect to be challenged more on their abilities to lead and succeed in the Air Force.

“Whether they can do it isn’t a question,” Chief Richardson said. “There will be no hesitation in putting them in those (leadership) positions.”

Chief Wilson said he thinks the Air Force does a very good job of teaching diversity, even though that hasn’t always been the case. This is important to Chief Wilson because the Air Force isn’t manned to the levels it was when he joined the Air Force.

“We not only train people -- we enforce it. We stand behind our supervisors and say, ‘This is how you treat people.’ You don’t use your stripes to boss people around,” he said. “We expect you to put your prejudices aside and get the most out of your people. The only way to do that is to foster an atmosphere of acceptance.”

Chief Richardson feels to foster acceptance and understanding, supervisors need to get out from behind their desks and get to know their people.

“We need to look at making more of an attempt to add a personal touch,” he said.