Long road toward equality

EVERETT — Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Ozie Greene, 83, still looks good in his uniform from 1970.

For most of his 21-year military career, including service in the 1960s at Paine Field, Greene was an air traffic controller. His wasn’t a quick rise in the ranks, however.

In 1949, Greene and a dozen other young black men followed the World War II success of the famed all-black Tuskegee Airmen to become the first to integrate the Air Force. Greene and his fellow enlistees were assigned to a previously all-white air group at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

“We called ourselves the Original 13,” said the Everett man. “This was before the civil rights movement really got going.”

President Harry Truman had signed an executive order the year before requiring that all U.S. military forces undergo racial desegregation. The Air Force was the first to comply, Greene said.

On Wednesday, Greene led the flag salute at Everett’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Partnering Reception at Carl Gipson Senior Center, where he also talked about his military career.

Greene grew up in the segregated South and left his native Arkansas to join the Air Force. At the time, there was unrest among blacks in the military over U.S. involvement in the political conflict in Korea, he said.

“They were saying, why do we have to help keep people free in Korea when we are not free here at home?” Greene said. “In Korea, the U.S. was the only country fighting there with racially segregated forces. The emotion was, if we can’t fight with you, we’re not going to fight for you.”

Initially sent to basic training with an all-black group, the “Original 13” men then joined the integrated forces in San Antonio.

“But our jobs there included peeling the potatoes in the mess hall kitchen and shining the officers’ shoes,” Greene said. “I have no animosity now, but it wasn’t easy for us. We weren’t equal. It took a long time for us to be able to say that we were.”

After registering their complaints, the black enlisted men finally were allowed to take a standard battery of tests that revealed their talents for service.

“I scored high in communication, and it was decided I would become an air traffic controller,” Greene said.

He served in Korea, Vietnam, France, the Philippines, Japan and at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma and Paine Field in Everett. He and his wife bought a house in Everett in 1963.

Ozie and Olivee Greene have been married 62 years now. Their daughter, Janice, the head of the NAACP in Everett, is in Washington, D.C., today for the presidential inauguration. Their sons, Ozie III and Dwayne, also live in Snohomish County.

Retired at age 41, Greene was unable to get a civilian job as an air traffic controller because of hypertension he developed in the service, along with his exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used in Vietnam. His high blood pressure made it impossible to pass the physical test required by the FAA to find employment in an airport control tower. For a time he found work at a foundry and later with the U.S. Postal Service.

He became friends with Carl Gipson, the former Everett City Councilman for whom the senior center is named.

Gipson, also from Arkansas, moved to Everett during his service at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

“Because of racial prejudice, I couldn’t find a place for my family to live in Oak Harbor, Anacortes or even Mount Vernon, so Everett is where we made our life,” Gipson said. “Ozie and I lived through a time when the military was segregated as all get out, and most communities were, too.”

Gipson goes to church with Greene and hangs out with him at the senior center.

“Ozie’s a good man. He made a good life for himself and his family,” Gipson said. “We both lived through changes in society, but it wasn’t easy.”

Greene believes that King, the slain civil rights leader, would have been pleased with society’s progress so far.

“He wanted people to know that God doesn’t differentiate between the colors. He wanted all people to be treated as equals and he would have said that we are getting there,” Greene said. “Dr. King’s death brought a lot of people together to work toward his dream. But though we’re better off now, we still have a long way to go.”

Greene said among his concerns is what he sees as inequality in the criminal justice system, where more young black men are in prison that whites.

Olivee Greene agreed.

“But we’re also losing our sense of community, what with people with their noses in their iPhones and iPads all the time,” she said. “People need to look up and get to know the others around them. That’s how we’ll fight racial inequality.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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