Previous Site of the Month: November 2011
Lemuel R. Custis Gravesite
Cedar Hill Cemetery, 453 Fairfield Avenue, Hartford, CT 06114
Lemuel Rodney Custis was born in Hartford on June 4, 1915, the only child of Mary C. Goodwin Custis and Charles W. Custis. He grew up in Hartford, received a public school education and upon completion of high school attended Howard University, graduating in 1938 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics. Custis then returned to Hartford with hopes of employment with one of the city’s insurance companies. Instead, he accepted a job with the Hartford Police Department becoming the city’s first African American police officer in 1939. In 1941, he left the HPD to join the U.S. Army (which included the U.S. Air Force at the time) and participate in a program to train African Americans as military pilots. The training was to take place at Tuskegee Institute, the school founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881.
Prior to 1940, African Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military because many thought that black men lacked the intelligence, skill, courage and patriotism to serve as pilots. However, civil rights organizations and the black press exerted pressure that resulted in the Tuskegee program.
Thirteen aviation cadets began the military pilot training classes in July 1941 and five successfully completed the training in March 1942. The graduates, their rank and hometowns were:
Lemuel R. Custis, Second Lieutenant, Hartford, Connecticut
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., Captain, Tuskegee, Alabama
Charles H. DeBow, Second Lieutenant, Indianapolis, Indiana
George S. Roberts, Second Lieutenant, Fairmont, West Virginia
Mac Ross, Second Lieutenant, Dayton, Ohio
From 1941 through 1946, nearly a thousand African American men graduated from the Tuskegee program, receiving commissions and pilot wings. Nearly half that number served overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron) or the 332nd Fighter Group. The 99th Fighter Squadron trained in and flew P-40 Warhawk aircraft in combat in North Africa, Sicily and Italy from April, 1943 until July, 1944.
Appointed Squadron Operations Officer of the 99th Fighter Squadron, Custis served in the European/Mediterranean Theater. As a pilot, he was in battle at Anzio, Italy, where a beachhead was established in early 1944. In order to liberate Rome, it was necessary to go through Anzio. That proved to be a critical turning point for the black pilots, as it demonstrated their ability in combat. During the battle, on January 27, 1944, Custis shot down an enemy aircraft, a FW-190.
When the war ended, Custis returned to Tuskegee Army Air Field where he served as a flight instructor. Discharged from active military service in 1946 as a Captain, Custis returned to Hartford. He enrolled in the UCONN School of Law in 1951 but left the university in 1952 to take a position with the State of Connecticut Tax Department. He worked at the department for the next 30 years. In 1975, he became the first African American chief of sales tax, and served in the position until his retirement in 1982.
In retirement, Lemuel R. Custis continued his interest in and love of aviation. He attended the 25th Annual National Convention of Tuskegee Airmen in Seattle, WA in 1996; served as advisor to the CT Aeronautical Historical Association and as a member of the Board of Directors of the New England Air Museum. Custis died on February 24, 2005 at the age of 89. His gravesite is located in Hartford’s Cedar Hill Cemetery.