George S. Lima, Sr., the son of immigrants from Cape Verde, spent his adolescent years in Harlem, Fall River, and Providence with his Cape Verdean family. His life changed dramatically when he enrolled at North Carolina A&T State University in 1939 on a football scholarship. It was there he also learned to pilot planes.
When World War II erupted, George joined the controversial and courageous Tuskegee Airmen in Alabama, an African-American contingent who blazed a pioneering path to break the color barrier and fly with the “greatest generation.” But first, they had to win the fight with military authorities for the right to fight for America in this global conflict. Lima was one of fifteen black Rhode Islanders at Tuskegee. The story of these airmen has been recounted in books, articles, and this year’s acclaimed film, “Red Tails,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr.
Although George did not get the opportunity to actually fly in combat, he was the outfit’s photography officer. He did have one golden chance for hand-to-hand struggle when he engaged famed boxer Joe Louis at an exhibition match on the base. On a signed photograph to Lima, Louis quipped, “I saluted the lieutenant and hit him right in the chops.”
Lieutenant Lima participated in a more meaningful struggle when he helped lead a protest by sixty black officers against racial segregation in 1945 at a white officer’s club on an Indiana air base. Although the military protesters risked court martial, charges were dropped and the facilities desegregated just a few years before President Harry Truman ordered the same treatment for all US armed forces in 1948.
Lima returned to Providence after the war with his wife, Selma (Boone) Lima. They would spend fifty-five years together. The couple settled in Fall River while Lima finished his college career at Brown University. Lima commuted to Brown and played football, living on campus during training. He studied sociology in order to understand issues of race and segregation. He helped found the University’s chapter of Omega Psi Phi, a black fraternity, and he studied sociology and founded the first chapter of the National African-American fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, on campus. Despite an Ivy League degree, Lima could not break the color barriers in 1948, even in a more liberal northern setting. He first had to settle for a job as a shipping clerk at a downtown Providence department store.
He ended up rising through union ranks and became active in various social justice efforts throughout the ensuing decades. George soon moved on to tackle the impediments faced by working people on the job. He became the first full-time black officer in the state workers union–the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees–and he sat on the state AFL-CIO’s executive board. He later worked as a consultant with the Laborers International Union of North America and helped to found the Harvard Trade Union Program. He also organized the East Providence Veterans Administration hospital.
George also immersed himself in the Civil Rights Movement, organizing sit-ins for fair housing with local Catholic and Jewish activists. Then President John Kennedy tapped him to run VISTA in New England. After returning to Providence, he served as president of the local NAACP in 1963. He organized a large sleep-in at the Rhode Island State House to push for passage of a fair housing bill (which later passed).
In the 1980s Lima served two terms as a state representative from District 83 in East Providence. He helped pass legislation requiring that a percentage of state contracts be awarded to minority-owned businesses.
Though health problems forced Lima to retire in 1998, he remained active. He stayed fit by fishing and playing table tennis, and stayed dedicated to local causes. As a senior citizen, he formed the Black Air Foundation, (now known as The George S. Lima Foundation) a non-profit organization that introduces minority youth to the world of flying, serving as the president and CEO. He also studied Rhode Island’s role in slavery, attending two public meetings of Brown’s Steering Committee for Slavery and Justice.
East Providence filmmaker, Napoleon X turned Lima’s story into a documentary film titled Black Men Can Fly: The Story of George S. Lima. The film aired PBS television, and has since led to a series.
George Lima “flew” to places that few of his generation had ever visited.
Following Lima’s death in 2011, his son Robert M. Lima Sr. did not want people to forget all the things his father had done for Rhode Island. He pushed the city of East Providence to name a public space after his father and in 2014, the Hull Street Playground was named the George S. Lima Sr. Memorial Park.
– Dr. D. Scott Molloy, Jr.