Amagansett resident Lee A. Hayes, one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, who battled institutional racism, discrimination and segregation to become part of America’s fighting forces during World War II, died on Wednesday, December 4, at the age of 91.The Tuskegee Airmen, organized and trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, made their mark as the U.S. military’s first African-American fighter pilots. A lieutenant in the 385th Army Air Force, Mr. Hayes was one of the pioneers who quietly but demonstrably fought to change the status quo while serving his country.
As a pilot trained to fly a B-25 bomber, Lieutenant Hayes was prepared to fight the enemy abroad but also faced hostility from his own countrymen, as the U.S. military was racially segregated at that time. However, according to his grandson, Barry Johnson, he rarely talked about his experiences with racism, and believed strongly in forgiveness.
“As far as racial issues go, he was ready to let a lot of stuff go,” Mr. Johnson said. “There were things that happened that I would have a hard time forgiving. People would betray him—but if they needed his help, he was there as much as he could be.”
Mr. Johnson said that it was his grandfather who taught him how to deal with racial discrimination when it was at its height in America in the 1960s and 1970s. “He tried to protect me from any race problems that were going on,” he said. “He would never point out people who treated him poorly. He didn’t want me to treat people poorly because of him. He wanted me to make my own decisions.”
Mr. Hayes’s son, Craig, said that his father was “one of a kind” in the way he treated others, regardless of the way they treated him. The younger Mr. Hayes worked with his father as a carpenter after Lieutenant Hayes was discharged from the Army and started his own contracting company. “He showed me how to manage business and do it the right way—respect people, appreciate people,” the younger Mr. Hayes said. “Raise your family the right way. He just taught me the right basic things in life.”
Craig Hayes said that when it came to handling racism and discrimination, his father would always turn the other cheek. “He had some obstacles to deal with when he was in the service,” he said. “To withstand all the discrimination that he dealt with—I couldn’t have done it. I’m so proud of him. I envy him.”
Born in 1922 in Mannboro, Virginia, Lee A. Hayes moved to Amagansett with his family when he was just 9 years old. A carpenter by trade, he later built the house on Town Lane in Amagansett where he raised his family.
Once he became of age, he left school in East Hampton and headed to Texas and Kentucky, where he trained as a bombardier for the 477th Bomber Group. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1944 and was discharged in June 1946. When he returned from military duty, he received his high school diploma and went on to attend Farmingdale College, majoring in airplane maintenance and operations. He then opened his own contracting company and worked hard to become a part of his community, joining American Legion Post 419 in Amagansett and other civic organizations, and even running for local public office back in the 1980s.
“He was one of the first blacks who ran for any kind of town office in East Hampton,” the younger Mr. Hayes said. “He almost won.” Lee Hayes was a “strong member of the Democratic party,” his son added, even joining the local committee.
Henry Haney, a deacon at the Calvary Baptist Church in East Hampton, where Mr. Hayes was a trustee, remembers him fondly. “We go way back. I hardly know where to start,” he said. “He was very active in the community. He was out in the forefront working with the people in the community, white and black. He had that reputation. He was well known and he was respected by the black community.”
Mr. Haney said that Mr. Hayes took his trustee responsibilities at the church very seriously: “He was deeply involved, and the role that he played as a trustee was organizing and the land possession.”
To his grandson, Barry Johnson, now an East Hampton Town Police officer, Mr. Hayes was like a father. He said that his grandfather and his mother, Mr. Hayes’s daughter, Karlys, raised him together.
“My father wasn’t around much,” Mr. Johnson said, adding that he would often accompany his grandfather when he made public appearances to speak about his time with the Tuskegee Airmen. Mr. Hayes was invited to make a presentation at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the 1960s and was recently the subject of an exhibition at the Suffolk County Historical Society celebrating Black History Month.
Mr. Johnson said that he never realized the historical significance of what his grandfather had done with the Tuskegee Airmen until he became a teenager. “It’s just fascinating that this person who raised me was so humble,” he said.
A funeral service for Lee Hayes was held at the Calvary Baptist Church in East Hampton on Monday. Lieutenant Hayes is buried at Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton.
Lee A. Hayes’s wife, Marion, died in 1985. Besides his son, Craig Hayes and grandson, Barry Johnson, he is survived by a daughter, Karlys Johnson; a granddaughter, Crystal Hayes; and great-grandchildren Connor, Yori and Nuelle Johnson.