Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Life and Letters of James Bryant Smith

As part of the Advanced Archives Practicum class offered by the University of West Georgia's Public History Program, we are required to complete seventy-five internship hours for Auburn Avenue Research Library. Our first group project was to process the James Bryant Smith Collection, which details the life of the Tuskegee Airman from Columbus, Ohio.

A war veteran and POW, Smith’s collection contains over 750 letters to and from his wife, Florence Smith. The majority of the letters date from 1943 and 1944, when Smith left Columbus to become one of the first airmen to complete aviation training at Tuskegee Air Field. Several significant personal events are recorded in these early letters, from James and Florence’s engagement and marriage to the birth of their first child. The Smiths also corresponded about their day-to-day activities, which included his flight training and her work at an Ohio airplane assembly plant.

Smith arrived at the Tuskegee Air Field in Alabama in January 1943 and trained as a fighter pilot with the 1155th Single Engine Flying Training Squadron (S.E.F.T.S.). Smith remained a career serviceman after World War II ended, and he served in various training capacities in Hawaii and Colorado. When the Korean War began in 1950, Smith’s unit was quickly shipped out. On September 8th his family received notice that he had been missing in action since July 26th. During this time, for approximately three months, Smith was a Prisoner of War.

As a Tuskegee Airman, Smith was in a unique position to help improve race relations within the nation. Prior to the Tuskegee Airmen, no African Americans had been military pilots, and the War Department was so resistant of the notion that it attempted to eliminate the unit before it could even begin. Only those with a certain level of flight experience or higher education could apply, but it underestimated the number of eligible men who would apply. James and Florence discussed other racially-charged events, such as the Detroit Race Riots in June 1943, as well as every-day discrimination, like the segregation of train cars.

In addition to James and Florence Smith’s correspondence during World War II, the collection also highlights Smith’s subsequent military career. Smith saved many documents, publications, and artifacts from his service in the 1950s and 1960s, which would be of great interest to military enthusiasts.

Posted by Shannon Danielle Smith and Sarah Warren, University of West Georgia interns


  1. Hi, This is the granddaughter of James B. Smith and Florence E. Jordan-Smith, Jameka Smith. My Dad is Florence and James son David. My family has been trying to track down these letters for some time. You have no idea how happy we were to find this post. This is a very important part of our family history. Please contact us when you can. I'm sure we may be able to supply you with more information about my grandfather for your research as well. Thank you for your time!
    -Jameka Smith
    here is our 800# as well

  2. By the way not only was he a POW. But he escaped..twice! and helped save others in the process :)