Unlawful Orders: A Portrait of Dr. James B. Williams, Tuskegee Airman, Surgeon, and Activist

Unlawful Orders: A Portrait of Dr. James B. Williams, Tuskegee Airman, Surgeon, and Activist
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Release Date
October 18, 2022
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Barbara Binns presents the inspiring story of one man in his struggle for racial equality in the field of battle and the field of medicine.
The Tuskegee Airmen heroically fought for the right to be officers of the US military so that they might participate in World War II by flying overseas to help defeat fascism. However, after winning that battle, they faced their next great challenge at Freeman Field, Iowa, where racist white officers barred them from entering the prestigious Officers' Club that their rank promised them. The Freeman Field Mutiny, as it became known, would eventually lead to the desegregation of the US armed forces, forever changing the course of American history and race relations.

One Black officer who refused to give in to the bigotry at Freeman Field was James Buchanan "JB" Williams. JB grew up the son of sharecroppers, but his loving family and insuppressible intellect drove him to push boundaries placed on Black Americans in the early twentieth century. JB's devotion to the betterment of others took him from the classroom where he learned to be a doctor, to serving as a medic in the US military and eventually joining the elite Tuskegee Airmen, where he fought to change the minds of all who believed Black men couldn't make good soldiers. But JB's greatest contribution came in his role as doctor and Civil Rights activist after the war, where he continued to push past injustices placed on Black Americans.

Critically acclaimed author Barbara Binns tells the story of one man's remarkable life, and in doing so, explores the trials of the brave Black freedom fighters who defended the world against racism and bigotry, both on the front lines and at home.

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Fascinating 20th Century Biography
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Learning Value
Born in 1919, James B. Williams was part of a family with deep ties to both education and Civil Rights. His mother, Clara Belle Williams, attended college even though she was made to sit in the hallway for her classes because she was Black, and his father founded the El Paso, Texas chapter of the NAACP and proposed to Clara Belle on their stationery! In addition to information about Williams' family background and childhood, there is also information about the involvement of African Americans during the Revolutionary War and WWI, the racial issues of the summer of 1919, and information about Plessy vs. Ferguson and how the effects of that were seen in Williams' education. Since Williams wanted to be a doctor, Binns frames his studies in a comprehensive overview of how Black students were treated in the 1940s, and continues this treatment when he is assigned to medical corps and sent to Camp Pickett. There is a wealth of information about the treatment of Blacks, and the Freeman Field Mutiny in which Williams was involved that concerned the fact that Black officers were denied admission to officers' clubs even though these were not supposed to be segregated. The careers of both Benjamin O. Davis senior and junior are discussed at length and serve as good examples of how bad the treatment of Black soldiers by the military was.

Williams' 477th unit missed being sent to the front lines by just a few weeks, and he continued his medical studies, becoming the first Black surgical resident at a non-Black school, Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He also studied at McGill. As the Civil Rights movement started making changes in the 1960s, Williams was involved in a variety of organizations. One was the National Medical Association, a group of Black doctors who were denied admission to the American Medical Association. His own children were able to be successful in their own fields because of the constant work that he did toward equity.
Good Points
While there is plenty of information just on Williams' life (and I loved Binns' note about the archival information she was able to access, as well as the fact that his daughter was a journalist, so there was a lot of good information saved!) to write a biography, it's fascinating to see how his life aligned with so many different important aspects of the Civil Rights movement. From his mother, who continued to attend college and learn throughout her life before dying at the age of 109, to his own struggles in so many areas, to the success of his children (who are closer to my age!), Unlawful Orders paints a vivid picture of the struggles Black Americans faced, and how those changed over time through the efforts of people like Williams.

Binns, whose middle grade novel 2018 novel Courage managed to weave in a lot of information about topics other than diving, has constructed a biography of James B. Williams that also includes a vast array of historical topics that informed his life. The books is just about equal parts biography and history, which is something I haven't quite seen before. The Scholastic Focus series does a great job of including a lot of primary source photographs and documents, and of covering information that hasn't been covered adequately in the past. It would be interesting to see Binns do a historical fiction novel about the Freeman Field Mutiny; there would be readers for that!
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