“Unlawful Orders” by Barbara Bynes (Scholastic) is a biography of James Buchanan (JB) Williams, but it’s much more than that, too.
The Beans story discusses everything from the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers, and separate armed forces to Buffalo Soldiers, famed aviator Bess Coleman, historically black colleges and universities, Eleanor Roosevelt, the NAACP, and the Freeman Field Rebellion (which is what the title refers to), and that’s only in the first half of the book !
Each member of the JB family has been a high achiever, and the Binns story illustrates how they have all navigated and thrived in a society riddled with blatant racial discrimination, both in the armed forces during World War II and in the medical establishment, as well as every day. life.
Williams was the middle of three siblings (Jasper, James and Charles). They grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with their father Jasper and their mother Clara Bell.
She attended New Mexico State University for her undergraduate degree. Although the school took her tuition, it prevented her from studying. Clara Bell had to listen to lectures from the hall.
Clara Bell persevered and earned her BA in English with a minor in math at age 51. The white students refused to share her graduation party with her, so it was cancelled.
Meanwhile, JB wanted to become a doctor, but when World War II came, he first decided to fulfill a different dream of his, to become a pilot.
He became part of the all-black bombing squadron known as the 477th.
Unfortunately, the squadron was led by two white men who were deeply entrenched in apartheid. In the end, they had the black officers sign an order stating that they agreed to segregation. This violated Army regulations (hence the book’s title), and many officers, including Williams, dismissed it. Their efforts landed them in prison, but also made national news. It was known as the Freeman Field Rebellion.
Many historians point to this event as a major step in the desegregation of the armed forces.
When the war ended, JB turned to his original goal, to become a doctor. There were only two medical schools for blacks at the time, and because there were so many qualified students, there was no room for JB
Taking a page from his mother’s book, he convinced an all-white medical school, Creighton University in Nebraska, to enroll it. He earned his medical degree, as well as a master’s degree in surgery, and later became the first graduate of Creighton University to pass the American Board of Surgery exam on the first try. From there, he became the first black physician at St. Bernard Hospital in Chicago before becoming the first black chief of surgery.
Meanwhile, the JB brothers have also become very successful doctors, and here’s another place where their stories intersect with a broader history.
Since most hospitals would not treat blacks, the National Medical Association, a professional organization of black doctors (because the American Medical Association would not accept them), urged black medical professionals to pool their resources and set up their own clinics.
The Williams brothers responded to this call and established a medical clinic, The Williams Clinic, on the South Side of Chicago, which they ran until 1994.
In another effort to combat racism in the medical establishment, JP went to Washington, D.C., along with several other black doctors and met President John F. Kennedy to urge him to demand that medical institutions receiving federal funds become integrated.
JB’s story covers a lot of different topics, and you might think that would make it difficult for younger readers, but Binns has a narrative voice that appeals to the reader. It addresses the reader directly several times. For example, when JB and his brother were banned from the local school because they were black, Binns wrote, “Take a moment and imagine how they felt when they were told they didn’t belong in the same place as the white and Mexican kids who were just like them.”
Elsewhere, she talks about how lonely it often feels to be a pioneer, as the Williams brothers often do. But she talks about it in an encouraging way, too, so her readers feel that JB and his siblings wouldn’t have acted differently if given the chance.
It shows how their efforts paid off, such as when JB met Kennedy, who then supported the federal rule on Medicare integration. Or in Clara Bell’s case, after her NMSU experience, other black people enrolled and were allowed to sit in the class.
In fact, decades later, NMSU acknowledged the unfairness of Clara Bell’s experiences, awarded her an honorary doctorate and apologized for treating her all those years. They also renamed the English building in her honor.
Bynes’ story emphasizes Martin Luther King’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In other words, don’t give up.
I am so happy to have this book on my shelf.