Photograph courtesy of HERALD-REVIEW.COM


February marks the celebration of Black History Month on the UIS campus and around the world. This month focuses on the stories of courageous black men and women and gives a voice to those who have been silenced and ignored throughout history. Growing up, many students learned about black icons like Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass but there are many other, lesser-known figures local to the Illinois area that should be recognized and remembered.

Ellsworth Dansby is one black figure UIS students need to know about. Dansby was born in 1914 in Decatur, Illinois. He was a well-educated man and graduated from both Decatur High School and Millikin University. Dansby was interested in flying as a young boy and applied to the Air Force after finishing school, though, at the time, black men were not accepted into technical units. Despite this obstacle, Dansby persisted in his interest and was the second black man to be sworn into the Army Air Force and to become an active member within the first black aviation unit – the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the Army Air Corps. The unit began work at Chantule Field in Rantoul, IL but was later moved to Tuskegee, Alabama where it became the birthplace of the Tuskegee Airmen. Dansby was the first of the enlisted men in the group to receive the rank of master sergeant during World War II.

The Tuskegee Airmen were critical assets during World War II despite the limited opportunities, segregation, and racial oppression they faced. The young black pilots were effective aerial fighters and helped to push back against the Germans. Though they proved their strength time and time again, the airmen referred to themselves as “The Lonely Eagles” because they often felt isolated as a result of segregation and discrimination.

After the war ended, Dansby returned to Decatur and continued to help provide a path for other black men and women to succeed through his campaign for civil rights and racial integration. He was able to organize black people to pay their power bills in pennies until the Illinois Power Co. hired black female office workers and later became a member of the Decatur school board. Dansby wanted to see effective change come about during his lifetime and was able to do just that by using his own voice and power as a black man to speak out for the community.