DECATUR — A new public school building in central Illinois will be named after a local Tuskegee Airman – the late Ellsworth Dansby, Jr.
His son, Ellsworth Dansby III, said his father believed in his city and his country.
“His motto was: let’s do it. Let’s help build and keep our community strong,” Ellsworth Dansby III said.
Born in 1919 in Decatur, Ellsworth Dansby, Jr., was fascinated by planes. He first flew alone at age 12 – without ever previously riding in a plane. He used knowledge from books he had read to land his solo flight safely.
During World War II, he became one of the first African American pilots and master sergeants in the U.S. Army Air Corps, as part of an all-Black unit that became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
He returned from the war to more segregation and inequality.
“You could see people were following the law but not really living with the spirit of the law. He worked very hard to keep equality and help reduce discrimination to prove the good in all people,” Dansby III said.
Dansby served on the Decatur Public Schools Board of Education from 1968 to 1971, when the city was debating busing students across neighborhoods to promote integration. His son said he advocated for desegregation in schools in Illinois and Indiana as part of Project Equality, a church-based organization.
He also pursued a career in engineering after he returned from the war. He worked at Argonne National Laboratory. According to Dansby III, he was involved in nuclear development there and later helped design nuclear submarines.
He died in 1989.
Construction begins on Ellsworth Dansby Jr. Magnet School
Decatur Public Schools voted on Tuesday to rename American Dreamer STEM Academy. Three days later, the district officially broke ground on the future Ellsworth Dansby Jr. Magnet School.
In addition to Dansby III and other officials, current students from American Dreamer STEM Academy helped shovel some ceremonial dirt.
Seventh grader Marya Bradford said the plans for the new building look exciting. She likes how Dansby represents the cultural background and the interests – like science – of many at the school.
Because sophomore Qayden Bond’s mom is the principal of American Dreamer STEM Academy, he attended the ceremony too and took a picture with Dansby III.
“His dad was basically the first Black male fighter pilot. Being Black myself, I take that into inspiration to do my own first something or other,” Bond said.
Bond’s mother, Principal Rida Ellis, brought the name change to the school board on Tuesday. She said her students know about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, and this is a chance to educate them about a local hero.
Construction on Ellsworth Dansby, Jr. Magnet School will be done in about a year and a half, according to a spokesperson for DPS.
Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter@amihatt.