In March 1941, all Lowell Steward wanted was to be able to shake hands with other players at a basketball tournament in Kansas City. But he was not deemed worthy to participate with his team from Santa Barbara State College.
In March 2007, the nation recognized Steward as a worthy citizen, a hero even, and he shook hands with President George W. Bush inside the U.S. Capitol rotunda. The occasion was the awarding of the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen, those accomplished black fighter pilots in World War II.
George Washington received the first Congressional Gold Medal from the Continental Congress in 1776. Since then, it has been bestowed fewer than 250 times.
“There’s nothing higher,” said Steward, who accepted the award graciously with his fellow airmen, even though it came very late-too late for their hundreds of comrades who died in combat or from natural causes; too late for him to share it with his wife Helen, who died three years ago.
Steward’s home in Oxnard is decorated with memorabilia from his flying days-photos of him on the airfield with his squadron, paintings of their P-51 Mustangs soaring through the clouds and swooping over exploding targets. On a shelf is the Distinguished Flying Cross that Steward earned. He flew 143 missions in the war.
There also are photos of Steward with his college basketball team and a certificate noting his induction into the UCSB Athletic Hall of Fame. He was an all-conference player for the Gauchos in 1941 and ’42, when he was team captain, and he also was a league champion in the high jump and long jump.
“I was a jumper,” said Steward, who played center even though he was only 5’11”. He was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in the 1940-41 season, when the Gauchos received their first invitation to a postseason tournament. They went to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball Championships in Kansas City.
They went with Steward’s blessing, and he made the trip with them, even though he would not be able to play since Missouri was ruled by Jim Crow segregation. Steward could not even step on the floor when the 32 participating teams paraded into the Municipal Auditorium. He was turned away and told to go sit in the rafters with the other “colored” spectators.
The Gauchos finished in fourth place. San Diego State, a team they had defeated earlier in the season, won the tournament. On the train ride back to Santa Barbara, UCSB’s coach Willie Wilton recalled that Steward lay awake through the night, making “this mournful humming sound.”
Upon his graduation, Steward had a burning desire to prove himself. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became one of the first pilots trained for the all-black 332nd Fighter Group at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He spent 15 months in combat. When Allied forces were landing at Normandy 63 years ago this week, the Tuskegee Airmen were escorting bombers from bases in Italy into enemy territory.
“It was dull, dull, dull,” Steward said bluntly last week. “The long-range missions were six or seven hours in an airplane.”
He had some exciting moments, though, like the time he flew support for the retrieval of an escaped American prisoner in Germany, or the time an 18-inch hole was blasted into his wing over Marseilles. “It was flapping,” he said. “I had to fly slow so the plane wouldn’t catapult. I landed in Rome.”
When he finally made it back home after the war, Steward encountered further racial slights and insults. He forged ahead and became a successful realtor. He’s now 88, enough years to fill a piano keyboard, with the highest note coming at last.