Victor L. Ransom, MIT Class of 1948. Photo courtesy MIT Museum

Victor “Vic” Llewellyn Ransom
March 22, 1924 – April 22, 2020
477th Bombardment Group

Victor “Vic” Llewellyn Ransom was born in New York City to a schoolteacher and a writer, both of whom were part of the Harlem Renaissance. Chasing after top schools for Ransom, the family moved 16 times before he turned 16. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School, a magnet public school known for its rigorous math and science curriculum. By senior year, Ransom had already set his sights on studying electrical engineering at MIT.

Ransom’s memories of his arrival to the Institute in 1941 are vivid. His impression of the campus was of a “War Department,” with “massive, unsympathetic buildings”. In December of that year, in fact, events at Pearl Harbor led to the United States’ entry into World War II. During his sophomore year at MIT, Ransom took a leave from MIT for service training.

I received a letter from the ROTC program, which I was involved in, that said something like, “This man has had training in engineering and ought to be considered for the Signal Corps.” Well, the Army had no idea what to do with that note like this about a black soldier, so I stayed in the reception center for a couple of months while they tried to figure it out.

Black officers at Freeman Field, Indiana were segregated in an abandoned cadet field and referred to as “trainees,” regardless of rank. A member of the 477th Bombardment Group, Ransom was among the 101 Tuskegee Airmen who took part in the Freeman Field Mutiny protest against segregation in 1945.

The war ended without Victor Ransom ever leaving U.S. soil. But he and other members of the 477th Bombardment Group were busy fighting a different battle.

Activated in June 1944, the 477th was plagued by delays and inefficiencies, due in large part to its commander, a white colonel and rigid segregationist who moved the group from base to base 38 times in less than a year to try to quell dissent. Fed up, a group of black officers staged a quiet, nonviolent protest at Freeman Field, Indiana, on April 5, 1945, when they tried to enter a club used by white officers only…

Victor Ransom knew that what he and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen were planning that April day in 1945 would probably get them arrested.

But none of them cared.

“We just said the hell with it, we have to do this,” the 87-year-old borough resident remembered.

Ransom and his fellow officers wrote a bit of civil rights history that month when they defied orders promulgated by their unit’s commander and entered an officer’s club that had been deemed for whites only.

That action —and another act of civil disobedience later in the month —landed them under house arrest and became known as the Freeman Field Mutiny.

It was early April, 1945, and Ransom was a 21-year-old 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force, assigned to the 118th Bombardment Unit, part of the 477th Bombardment Group, one the units of African-American pilots who made up what was known as the Tuskegee Airmen in the then-segregated Army. He was stationed at Freeman Air Field in Seymour, Ind.

The officers were angry that their commander, Col. Robert R. Selway Jr., had two Officer’s Clubs built, one for the white officers and one for the black officers, and that they had been banned from the main, whites-only, club.

“That was just so outrageous,” he said.

Racism in the military was nothing new to Ransom, he said. He’d been exposed to it since enlisting in the Army when he was a college sophomore and landing in Tuskegee, Alabama. Unlike many of his fellow Tuskegee Airmen who were engaging the Axis in Europe during World War II, Ransom said, “All my battles were fought in the south.”

Speaking of one town, he said, “I remember walking to one of those small places where you could buy a soda from the outside. They said, ‘You have to go around the back.’ We just laughed and walked off.”

By the time of the Freeman Field Mutiny, Ransom and his fellow bombardiers had suffered through several years of racially based frustration, he said. That frustration stemmed from the fact that, although they were ready and willing to deploy to the European theater, the members of the bombing groups never got the chance. “They didn’t want black bombers overseas,” he said. “There were segments of the Army Air Force who just didn’t want to send the bomb group overseas.”

The Army Air Force was the precursor to today’s Air Force. What that meant for Ransom and other black bombardiers was constant moving to airfields within the United States, and constant exposure to racism.

By the time the various units of bombardiers had been assigned to Freeman Air Field, they’d had enough, Ransom said. And a regulation from the airfield’s commander— in violation of military regulations enacted two years earlier prohibiting them from the whites-only Officers Club was the tipping point.

According to accounts of the incident in contemporaneous stories that appeared in the local newspaper, the Seymour Tribune, on April 5, 1945, 36 black officers were arrested when they tried to enter the officers club.

The officers entered in three groups; Ransom was in the second group arrested.

On April 6, 25 more officers were arrested when they attempted to enter the club. The officers were placed under house arrest. All but three were eventually released, according to the account.

But that did not stop the mutiny, according to the account in the Tribune.

Alarmed by the incident, Selway ordered the officers to sign a document attesting to their understanding of the regulation banning them from the white club. Eventually, only three of the officers signed the document. The remaining 101 officers — including Ransom —were arrested for their refusing to sign.

They were placed under house arrest and shipped off to Godman Field in Louisville, Ky. for 90 days. The charges they faced – disobeying a direct order from a superior officer in a time of war could have resulted in their execution.

They were returned to Freeman, and all charges were dropped by April 13. Three officers accused of jostling a superior officer on the first night of the mutiny were tried; two were acquitted and one was found guilty and fined $120.

Ransom said the mutiny — which led to further desegregation of the military was worth it.

“We were trying to make statement to society that this was outrageous,” he said. “We knew we were commissioned officers; it just didn’t make any sense that we couldn’t go into the Officer’s Club.

Cleared by a congressional inquiry, Ransom and the others were released within a few weeks. A few months later, the war ended and Ransom returned to MIT to complete his graduate work in electrical engineering…

“My achievement was our efforts to integrate the officers’ club,” he says wryly. “It was silly. But it characterizes the nature of the country at the time.”

After the war Ransom resumed undergraduate studies at the Institute, completing his remaining years under the GI Bill in 1948. Though faced with a tough job market after MIT, Ransom received an immediate job offer from NACA–precursor to NASA–at the Langley Field Lab in Hampton, Virginia. Segregation led him to transfer to NACA’s Lewis Lab in Cleveland, Ohio, where he would be able to complete graduate studies; in 1957, Ransom earned his Masters degree in Electrical Engineering from Case Institute of Technology (today Case Western).

Ransom joined Bell Laboratories, moving up the ranks at Bell Labs and in the communications industry for the next 30 years. His areas of specialty included transistors and digital products, network switching technologies, systems for special needs, and environmental control systems design.

A FAMILY STEEPED IN A LEGACY OF EXCELLENCE

Victor came from an interesting family that included not only the first black judge in Brooklyn, and a mother and aunt who were both graduates of Howard and Columbia University in the 30s; his aunt was actually a founder of what is still one of the largest black women’s sororities in the United States, Alpha Kappa Alpha. He received his master’s degree in Engineering at M.I.T and spent his entire fifty-year career working for Bell Labs as a Department Head, while teaching engineering on the side at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.

His wife, Dorothy spent her career teaching elementary school first in Red Bank followed by Little Silver public schools.

Their daughter Pamela is a graduate of Harvard, with a doctorate from MIT in Urban Planning. She served as Special Assistant for Environmental Affairs for almost seven years in the office of the former Mayor and Manhattan Borough President of New York City, David Dinkins, working in the same office where the current Mayor of New York Bill DeBlasio got his start in government. She was previously Deputy Director of Town Planning for Jamaica in the West Indies, worked in Kenya as Deputy Director of Harvard Africa Volunteers, and then taught public affairs and policy as a professor for almost twenty-five years at Long Island University in Brooklyn and now for the last ten years at Metropolitan College in New York in the School of Public Affairs and Administration. She has also been a consultant for a wide range of organizations including the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and USAID, with ten years as lecturer with Northwestern University in their School of Professional Studies.

Their son Victor graduated from Wabash College, lives in Cambridge Mass, has done work in journalism and helps provide services to the Housing Authority there.

Sources:
Lynn Humphrey
Fred Kagel
Molly Walker and Rick Goldberg
BlackHistory.mit.edu

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