Dabney, Historian As Living History

The Black fighters were not supposed to succeed, Montgomery recalls: They were deemed incapable of executing sharp fighter-plane maneuvers, because, they were told, the arteries in their brains were smaller than in white men’s.

[New York: Black History Month]


Dabney Montgomery is cheering the Giants on TV in the cellar of Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem.

“Hold on to that pass!” he screams. This is how Montgomery blows off steam during the busiest month of his year. When there is a break in the action, he spins around to tell a guest more about the church.

“See that pulpit in the corner?” he says. “In 1818 Frederick Douglass spoke from it.”

In February, Black History Month, Montgomery, 84, keeps a movie star’s schedule, and even during the Super Bowl, he cannot stop talking about history. He has been the historian at Mother Zion’s, once a crucial stop on the Underground Railroad, for 55 years. But last year Montgomery was one of roughly 300 living Tuskegee Airmen who were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, a civilian award, for their service in World War II.

Now he is in constant demand to tell his own story, and the historian becomes living history. After the army Montgomery was a civil rights activist, a bodyguard, a ballet dancer, a student, a chaplain, a community board member and a social services worker. And always a teacher.

On this weekend in early February, Montgomery’s itinerary is a typical example of his schedule for the coming month which includes interviews with “HistoryMakers” (an African-American video oral-history project), a reporter from Channel 1 and another from The New York Times.

Before the Super Bowl party at Mother Zion, Montgomery and his wife Amelia attended a reunion with Dabney’s Tuskegee comrades in Newburgh, N.Y. Montgomery, the chaplain of his group, wore a suit and vest with a blue Tuskegee cap which he is still wearing during the game.

Montgomery’s journey began in Selma, Ala. He was the youngest of six siblings born to Dred and Lula Montgomery. His father was a railroad fireman and managed a decent living, rare for a black family in that era.

When he was 19 Montgomery joined the Army, and, like hundreds of thousands of others, was soon headed for the front lines to battle the Germans. He was not a pilot, but a member of the 1051st Quartermaster Company. The unit’s duty was to provide food and clothing to the airmen, who in turn escorted and protected American B-24 bombers as they attacked Nazi targets, losing an astonishingly low number of fighter planes to enemy fire.

The Black fighters were not supposed to succeed, Montgomery recalls: They were deemed incapable of executing sharp fighter-plane maneuvers, because, they were told, the arteries in their brains were smaller than in white men’s. Or so the experts said.

“I don’t know where they were getting their facts, but they came up with this old jive and people believed them,” Montgomery says.

On the ship to Europe Montgomery says he saw his first combat. “We ran into pack of German submarines [and] we had these [American] fighter naval ships coming up besides us and dropping bombs in to the ocean,” he says. The bombs sent sprays of water three to four stories high. “It was like looking at the Macy’s fireworks on the Fourth of July,” he laughs. “We thought it was fun, but none of us could swim.”

A couple of days after the Super Bowl, the Montgomerys are standing in the lobby of the law firm Skadden, Arps, where the interview with HistoryMakers is taking place. The interviewer, Larry Crowe, a historian from Ohio, asks Montgomery to start at the famous 1965 Selma civil rights march.

Montgomery explains that when he returned from the war, he decided to pursue professional dancing in New York, studying ballet at the Metropolitan Opera. A back injury killed that dream. He had gotten a degree in religious studies at Livingstone College in North Carolina, and later studied economics. He went to work in New York as a social service investigator.

Around that time Americans watched in horror as police attacked marchers as they started their journey from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, Ala. Montgomery was one of those who rushed from New York City back to his hometown to join the movement.

“One night they asked if there were any volunteers to protect Dr. King,” Montgomery says. “There were 25 of us and we were instructed to jump on top of Dr. King and protect him should anyone attempt to reach him.”

The march, which took five days and covered a 54-mile route along state Highway 80, left Montgomery feeling “tired but happy.” He remembers having to stop along the route to launder the clothes he was wearing as he had no spares. After the march he saved his tie and his worn-out shoe heels. He said the highlight was meeting Dr. King, whom he recalls as “the most dynamic young man that I ever met.”

The march was on Montgomery’s mind as he saw Barack Obama win the Alabama primary.

“He is standing on the shoulders of those people that got beaten and nearly gassed to death at the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” he says. After the four-hour interview the Montgomerys are leaving to vote in the primaries. They will vote for “Obama of course,” says Amelia.

Amelia heads uptown as Montgomery is off to the Giants’ Super Bowl victory parade. He isn’t going to rest between appearances. “He loves a crowd,” she says. Her husband shows off a “jazz hands” move as a goodbye gesture, and with a mischievous grin slides towards the subway entrance to join the throng.

(Columbia News Service)

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