Two African-American athletes won gold at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Jesse Owens won four gold medals. It was said that Owens was responsible for “single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy”, and Owens garnered additional international publicity when he observed that Hitler wouldn’t shake his hand after winning the gold. But Owens wasn’t the only black athlete who competed in Berlin. Archie Williams also won a gold medal in the 400 meter track event and quipped, “Hitler wouldn’t shake my hand either”. Archie Williams (1915-1993) enjoyed several successful careers after the 1936 Olympics, in the military, in aviation, as a weather forecaster, and a teacher.
Williams was a member of the track and field team while studying mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. He had been, in his own words, an “airplane nut” when he was a kid growing up in Oakland, California, building model airplanes. After graduating from Berkeley in 1939, Williams could not find a job as an engineer because of his race. Instead, he found work with the Oakland Flying Service, maintaining and repairing aircraft. Next, Williams enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training program (as the only black student at the time), earned his private pilot’s license, and then qualified and earned an instructor rating. He became a flight instructor in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he helped train the all-black Tuskegee Airmen for the US Army. Williams was overage to become a military flying cadet himself, but there was a great need for weather cadets who would become Army Air Forces meteorologists and commissioned officers.
Williams was sent to study meteorolgy for a year at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was then sent back to Tuskegee as a meteorology officer, of which he said, “While I was there, I had three jobs. I was a weather officer. I was drawing weather maps, making weather forecasts, and teaching intro to flying”. The first thing every morning, he’d take a plane up to determine if the weather was safe for flying. Sometimes it wasn’t, and, unable to safely land at Tuskegee, he’d be forced to fly to Birmingham and wait there until the weather over Tuskegee cleared.
After the war, Williams stayed in the military and became an Air Force officer when the Air Force became a separate service from the Army. He earned a degree in aeronautical engineering before being sent to Japan and Korea at the outbreak of the Korean war.
Williams retired from the Air Force in 1964, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He loved being an instructor while in the military, so naturally he devoted his next 21 years to public education, teaching math and computer science to high school students in California. He also coached track and field sports.
Archie Williams passed away in 1993 at the age of 78. He had been a trailblazer in sports, the military, meterology, and education. A life well spent.
“Yesterday’s Air Force: Archie Williams” (2:18):
Question of the Night: Is the bad weather that most of the country is experiencing this week disrupting your life?