No. 5381 in Section 8 of Arlington National Cemetery
Wilmeth Sidat-Singh as a fighter pilot
with the Tuskegee Airmen
This article was selected for first place in the Sports (150,000-plus
circulation) category of the National Association of Black Journalist
Awards presented at a ceremony in Milwaukee on July 31st, 2002. It was
originally published on February 25, 2001.
the simple stone monuments surrounding it, the marker at Grave No. 5381
in Section 8 of Arlington National Cemetery silently poses a sorrowful
What if this life, cut short by war, had continued in peace?
What if this young man had been allowed to grow old? What might he have accomplished, fathered, passed down?
In the case of Lt. Wilmeth W. Sidat-Singh, the man buried in grave 5381, the
what-ifs loom large, because this mostly forgotten figure may have had
the right stuff to rewrite one of football's more shameful chapters: the
half-century lockout of African-Americans from leadership roles,
especially the quarterback position.
Even in a graveyard full of martyrs, Sidat-Singh
was exceptional — an outstanding athlete, a high-performing student, a
pioneering aviator, an African-American success story in a time when
racism didn't allow many.
"Sidat-Singh was my hero, my
idol," says Lee Archer, a Tuskegee Airman and World War II ace who
once shot down three Nazi planes on a single bomber-escort mission.
"He is why I became a pilot."
The story of this hero's hero, a son of Harlem and the stepson
of a Manhattan physician from India, sounds almost
too good to be true.
On the football field at Syracuse in the late
1930s, Sidat-Singh's passing and poise so
impressed Grantland Rice that the hallowed
sports writer put him on a par with Hall of Famers
Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh. On the basketball
court, Sidat-Singh co-starred on the best pro
team of the era, the Harlem Renaissance. In wartime, he earned his wings
with the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the black
fighter unit whose valor in World War II helped bring about desegregation
in the U.S. military. A
victim of gut-bucket racism, Sidat-Singh was
also its conqueror.
"Sidat was something,"
says John Isaacs, a Renaissance teammate who grew up playing with Sidat-Singh in Harlem sandlots and
against him on the PSAL hardwood. "So competitive, so disciplined,
anything he put his mind to he would do it."
Historian Thomas G. Smith of Nichols College in Massachusetts says Sidat-Singh was the Michael Vick, the Donovan McNabb,
of his day, "who could beat you with his arm and with his
More than that, remembers Roger Mabie,
the student manager of Sidat-Singh's Orangemen
football teams, "He was really a great guy. Never got a big head,
even though he was very well-known. All the coeds would faint when he
The public memory of Sidat-Singh
is all but gone, a casualty of the twin tragedies of America's color line
and his untimely death in 1943, at the age of 25.
McNabb — the Eagles Pro Bowl QB who starred at Syracuse 60 years after Sidat-Singh — has never heard of him.
But there are those who believe Sidat-Singh,
had he lived, was talented enough to unlock the doors that shut out black
quarterbacks for the better part of 50 post-war years.
"That might have been the crack they needed," says
Archer, a former track athlete at NYU and board member of the
International Amateur Athletics Federation. "It would have been
tough to say no to someone who did so much at a so-called white school.
It would have been tough to say he didn't have the mental capacity, after
he became a fighter pilot. It would have been tough to say to anyone he
didn't deserve a chance."
Smith, the historian, isn't so sure, given the era's
prejudices. "I think they'd have moved him to another
position," he says. "But if anyone might have been able to do
it, it would have been him."
John Isaacs remembers it like it was yesterday: the Rens, the sandlots, the Y — and Duke Ellington's
football. Now pushing 86, Isaacs works at the Madison Square Boys and
Girls Club on Hoe Avenue in the Bronx, looking lean
and spry enough to block a shot and start a fastbreak
like he did in his playing days as "the Boy Wonder" who signed
a pro contract right out of high school. He hung out near Sidat-Singh's house at 221 W. 135th, right near the
Harlem Y, and they got to know each other. Whatever sport there was, they
Everybody knew Dr. Samuel Sidat-Singh;
the Indian physician's office was on the block. And everybody knew his
adopted son Wilmeth, a transplant from Washington, D.C., where he was
born in 1917 to Pauline and Elias Webb, a pharmacist.
"My brother Elias died when Wilmeth
was very young," says Adelaide Webb Henley, Sidat-Singh's
aunt, who still lives in D.C. "My mother took Wilmeth
in for a time, and then Pauline re-married to Dr. Sidat-Singh
and moved to New York."
The doctor's son proved a gritty New Yorker. "We used
to play football on sandlots, in playclothes —
no pads, no Jordans, no
nothing," Isaacs says. "Duke Ellington's son, Mercer, was like
Winnie Winkle, a little rich kid. And Mercer had a whole brand-new
uniform: a helmet, shoulderpads — and the
So they needed him. "But when we had 23 guys, guess who
sat out? Mercer," Isaacs says. "We told him we didn't want him
to get his nice uniform dirty.
Sidat-Singh was good
at everything, from baseball to tennis. "He and Eyre Saitch, another player for the Rens,
would play this power game — wham," Isaacs says, pantomiming a
forehand. And football? Isaacs saw him throw it 60 yards, flat-footed.
He first made a name in basketball, at DeWitt Clinton High,
leading the Govs to the 1934 PSAL title and making all-city the following
year. A shade under 6-feet tall and a tad over 190 pounds, he was thickly
built, yet explosive. "A great first step," says Isaacs,
"maybe as quick as (ex-Boys High and Duquesne star) Sihugo Green's."
When Sidat-Singh earned a
basketball scholarship to Syracuse, the white city
newspapers that followed his exploits referred to him as Hindu, though
everyone in Harlem knew he was African-American.
His talent quickly shone through upstate. He starred on the
SU basketball team for three years, leading the Orange to a 14-0
season as a senior. But his greatest fame came in football, almost by
One day in 1936, Orange assistant coach
Roy Simmons spotted Sidat-Singh throwing a
football in an intramural game and ordered him onto the varsity.
He started the next season at halfback in the Orangemen's
single-wing offense — the equivalent of today's quarterback. His
dangerous arm and quick feet complemented the world-class speed of his
roommate, Marty Glickman, the Brooklyn-born
sprinter (and later legendary broadcaster) fresh off making the 1936
Cornell was the power in the East at that time, led by one
of the first black All-Americans, Jerome "Brud"
Holland. Syracuse beat them
twice, with Glickman running wild for more than
100 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 14-6 victory in 1937. The next year,
Singh completed six passes for 150 yards and three TDs
in the game's final nine minutes, lifting the Orange from deficits
of 10-0 and 17-6 to a 19-17 victory. It was heaven for headline writers:
"Singh's Slings Sink Cornell," went one; "It Don't Mean a
Thing If It Ain't Got That Singh," read
Grantland Rice chimed in
with his purplest prose. "A new
forward-pass hero slipped in front of the great white spotlight of fame
at Syracuse today. The
phenomenon of the rifle shot event went on beyond Sid Luckman
and Sammy Baugh. His name is Wilmeth Sidat-Singh." To ensure readers got the point,
Rice called the game "one of the most amazing exhibitions of
machine-gun fire I've ever seen, where the odds were all the other
He could not beat all the odds. The week Syracuse played
Maryland in 1937, Sam Lacy, an African-American newspaperman in D.C.
recently inducted into Cooperstown's writer's wing, wrote that the SU sensation
was not "Hindu," but in fact, "Negro." Maryland threatened to
cancel the game rather than face a team with a black player; SU coaches
told the Orangemen their leader wouldn't be in the lineup.
"My sister and my husband went up there that day," says Henley. "Wilmeth was just sitting there, with his head down,
so embarrassed and humiliated."
In the moments before kickoff, Glickman
faced an agonizing choice. On the eve of the Berlin Games' 400-meter
relay, American officials had scratched the 18-year-old Glickman from the race because he was Jewish; they
feared it would offend Hitler. Glickman, who
died last month at the age of 83, pondered sitting out in solidarity with
his friend and roommate.
"At first he was going to say if Wilmeth
didn't play, neither would he," says Marjorie Glickman,
Marty's wife. "But it was so soon after Berlin, and Marty
thought people would say, ‘There goes that Jewboy
causing trouble again.' So he decided to play."
It haunted him the rest of his life. "He soon realized
he should have been there with Wilmeth,"
Marge Glickman says. "He always felt bad
In later years, Glickman told and
re-told the story to mutual friends like Lee Archer, reiterating his
regrets every time. "But I never heard Sidat
mention that game," Archer says. "It wasn't something he
carried around with him."
The Orange lost that day,
13-0. The next season, when Maryland visited Syracuse, Sidat-Singh led a 53-17 rout.
After college, Sidat-Singh had
nowhere to take his football talent. The fledgling NFL had an unofficial
ban on black players from 1934 to 1946, broken only when the Rams signed
ex-UCLA stars Kenny Washington and Woody Strode to secure a lease in the
L.A. Coliseum after the war.
So he played basketball for the Rens,
alongside old-time greats like Isaacs, "Tarzan" Cooper and
"Pop" Gates. Barnstorming through the East and filling Harlem's Casino
Ballroom for games against industrial and college teams, the Rens were a phenomenon.
But the war got in the way. Not long after it started, Sidat-Singh moved back to D.C. and joined the police
He wasn't big on being a cop. "I remember one time he
told me he was at Griffith Stadium and a fight broke out," Isaacs
says, "and he yelled, ‘Somebody get the police,' until somebody
yelled back, ‘You are the police!'"
several Rens teammates to join him in a new
venture, a Washington team called the Bruins, later the Bears, which
played on Sundays in D.C. "Red Auerbach
(the Hall of Fame Celtics coach) would come watch us every Sunday in
Washington," Isaacs says. "I always tell people, ‘Ask Red where
he got the motion offense.'"
Soon, Sidat-Singh's pioneering
sports career would end. By 1943, he was trying to blaze a new trail in
Blacks weren't supposed to have the intelligence or
discipline to fly fighter planes in World War II. But the military was
desperate enough for manpower to experiment — and started a small,
segregated training program in Tuskegee, Ala. Black America's best and
brightest, including dozens of college athletes, heeded a clarion call. Sidat-Singh was one of them. He passed the entrance
exam for the Air Corps and was called up by the Army. "Sidat-Singh was just like so many young, aggressive,
athletic guys who loved the challenge and the idea of flying," says
Dr. Roscoe Brown, director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at
CUNY, and a Tuskegee Airman who in 1945 became the first U.S. pilot to shoot
down a German jet.
"They had what I call the Paul Robeson syndrome,"
says Brown, himself a lacrosse player at Springfield College. "They
weren't just great athletes, they were
valedictorians and star students as well."
They also had an unbreakable drive, necessary equipment to
cope with racist instructors who wanted them to fail and communities that
wanted no part of them. "I went in knowing these SOBs
were going to try to get rid of me," Archer says, "but I wasn't
going to let them."
The Tuskegee Airmen went on to become one of the most
successful air units in the war. Assigned to escort B-17s and B-24s over Europe, the Red Tails
of the 332nd Fighter Group didn't lose a single bomber. White Southern
bomber pilots requested the 332nd take them to their targets.
Sidat-Singh, who by
May of 1943 had completed the most difficult phases of training and had
earned his wings, would have been one of those pilots, says C.I.
Williams, who trained with him. "He'd have made it," Williams
says. "I don't have any doubt about it."
On May 9, Sidat-Singh and Williams
were flying a routine training mission over Lake Huron, when Sidat-Singh heard the the
rat-a-tat sputter of a failing engine. As his single-seat P-40 pursuit
plane plunged, the pilot bailed out of the cramped cockpit and popped his
parachute, taking his chances on the frigid water rather than a crash
As Sidat-Singh fell toward the
lake, Williams circled him and saw his friend make a fatal mistake.
"He didn't release his parachute before he hit the water,"
Entangled in the ropes, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh drowned. Williams circled as long as he
could, until the Coast Guard came, then ran out
of fuel as he landed at the training base in Oscoda, Mich.
Back in D.C., Adelaide Webb Henley heard the news over the
radio that her nephew's plane went down, and called Sidat-Singh's
mother in New York. Pauline hadn't
heard. "I broke the news," Adelaide says. "His
mother was on pins and needles."
But as the days passed, hope faded. They found Wilmeth Sidat-Singh's body
on June 26th, nearly six weeks later.
His death was big news in the black press, but only merited
a few paragraphs in the white world. There was a war on, with hundreds
dying every day. Harlem was a tinderbox
of racial strains, and a string of police brutality cases and
high-profile street crimes were building toward what would become August
riots. Sports, at least those
not cancelled, were an afterthought.
As the war receded and sports returned, Sidat-Singh's
legacy shrank. Syracuse football
produced greater stars, from Jim Brown to Ernie Davis to McNabb, and the Orange basketball team
became a perennial national power. The Rens
were undone by the war and the NBA, and Isaacs would wait decades before
people acknowledged his team's contributions to the game.
The Tuskegee Airmen, almost all of whom went on to
prominence in other fields, also endured a five-decade wait for
recognition — finally receiving it in the form of a 1995 HBO movie and
the attendant media blitz. Sidat-Singh's name,
meanwhile, remained interred in crumbling newspaper morgues.
But in the last few years, a few have begun to remember. In
1995, the DeWitt Clinton alumni association honored two of the school's
grads who went on to become Tuskegee Airmen, Archer and Sidat-Singh. They brought in his aunt, Henley, and
his former girlfriend.
The woman, now 80, and "the love of Wilmeth's
life," according to Henley, still lives in
Washington, but declined
to be interviewed for this story. "She told me at the dinner she
still carried a torch for him, after all these years," says Paul Pitluk, a Clinton alumnus who
along with Howard Richter helped resurrect Sidat-Singh's
memory with the fete.
In 1997, a writer named Thomas Dunn scripted a one-act play
called "The Story," based on Sam Lacy's
scoop that Sidat-Singh was not Hindu.
"Every time it's produced," Dunn says, "I learn something
more about his life. He's much more than a one-act." Recently, Dunn
was contacted about possibly expanding the work into a full-length
musical. "That is something," says Henley. "I didn't
know he would be material for a drama."
Which raises a final question, one not
steeped in melancholy. What if now, 60 years after his
too-short life, people finally get to know Wilmeth
The answer may lie in the words of his father, spoken at his
"We are certain he would feel that his life was not in
vain," said Samuel Sidat-Singh, "if
it served to put a spark into the lives of aspiring youngsters and to
impress upon them that ability, slowly but surely, receives