Cover Story By: Darwin Campbell, African-AmericanNews&Issues
Lackland AFB Icon Shares Insights About Our Black Past and Future
For 58 years, Lackland Air Force Baseicon Ernest R. McClure had a front seat witnessing military history unfold and better yet, historical changes for African-Americans serving in the military.
It was during that time that he served in the troops using his class act work as a renounced bartender-mixologist at the military clubs on Lackland Air Force Base from 1948 until his retirement in 2006.
“My goal when I accepted the job was to create a profession for myself through hard work, service, dedication and excellence,” he said. “It was not always easy and was a journey with roadblocks and detours. There has been rivers to cross and hills to climb, but in the end it was worthwhile.”
At 85, he is a man who now wants to encourage the younger generation to see and understand the value of knowing Black history.
“There just is not enough of pure Black history being shared with our people today,” he said. “We are not learning it, not using it and not connected enough to it to building the kind of Black pride and Black insights we need to develop our young people and our communities.”
Some of those roadblocks started with the restrictions that were associated with over coming the hurdles of racism and segregation during that time.
According to Black Historian Henry Louis Gates, President Franklin Roosevelt articulated in his famous “Four Freedoms” speech on Jan. 6, 1941, African Americans faced segregation, racial violence and deprivation of voting rights. Because of this great gap between the promise and performance of American freedom when it came to race relations, many black people were alienated from the war effort.
A. Philip Randolph’s threat of a massive March on Washington convinced FDR to ban discrimination against blacks in the defense industry in 1941, segregation in the armed forces persisted.
Despite the Double V Campaign to rally Blacks to support the war, it was difficult to convince Blacks to do just that. The campaign failed to achieve its goals during the war and segregation in the armed forces remained official policy.
In 1946, Truman established a Committee on Civil Rights, which reported back to him in 1947. The committee documented civil rights violations and racial violence and urged Truman to take steps to rid the country of the “disease” of racism. One of the points the report made was that African-Americans who serve their country did so in a racist and discriminatory environment. That report was instrumental in President Truman changing that in 1948.
The desegregation of the armed forces was a major civil rights victory for African Americans. Though a number of whites in the military resisted and racism continued to exist within the armed forces, Executive Order 9981 was the first major blow to segregation.
More than 2.5 million African Americans registered for the draft when World War II began; and 1 million served. The fight at home was against racial discrimination within the armed forces and the quest for equal and civil rights. That was just as important as the fight against fascism in Italy and Germany abroad.
According to McClure, the U.S. Air Force took the changes to heart and set up
ahead, but those initiatives only went as far as the entry gate to the base. Off base was a whole different story.
“Black serving were not as welcome outside the gates at that time,” he said. “Some even stayed on base the whole tour of duty at Lackland (because of the racist climate off base). If you left the post you were on your own.”
He recalled how the base established a Black Employees Program. THE BEP was a Department of Defense and command sponsored program designed to assist in the identification and removal of racial barriers and other acts of discrimination in the workforce at Lackland.
“There were a few isolated events, but they were dealt with and handled because it was not tolerated,” he said. “Job opportunities were limited elsewhere. The base was more progressive and programs designed to give you a chance to get ahead.”
His career as a super mixologist started from very humble beginnings. In 1948, after graduating high school in Yokum, Texas, he began pursuing a teaching degree at St. Phillips College. One day, he got sidetracked when looking for a job to pay some college expenses.
He and a friend went to the Lackland Officers Club for a job. The club offered them jobs as waiters. He began as a waiter, but ended up bartending. Except for a two years in the Army, McClure never looked back. He went onto finish his studies, but never got his teacher’s certificate.
He applied his skills and new found love by attending managing schools at military and civilian levels. He studied under mixology schools in California and New York as well as attending wine school Le Comite National Des Vins de France.
He always made it clear that he was a bartender turned mixologist. The difference is the bartender only learns to make a few drinks, while a mixologist studies, always learns and creates drinks.
In his time, McClure created several drinks that became popular among serviceman and officer alike that the base named his bar, “Ernie’s Hideaway”.
Member could come into the club and be served 12 original drinks created by McClure ranging from His “Special” to his “Delight”, which consisted of a mixture of apricot brandy, two types of rum and several fruit juices to His famed, “Breeze”, a non-alcoholic drink consisting of fruit juices.
During that time her served some fun events that involved more than 800 officers who were stationed there for training from 1950 to 1959.
“The 1960s brought more Black officers to Lackland and the club,” he said. “The Air Force made it crystal clear that it had a low tolerance for harassment and prejudice. Some accepted that and others who didn’t did not stay.”
Some of his brighter moments of service came serving several U.S. Presidents, including President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Congressmen and dignitaries from over 70 countries, Air Force Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Air Force.
Of those officers, many ended up as generals, including Andrew Iosue, Tom Richards and Daniel “Chappie” James – the first Black Four-Star General.
The best memories of his career came from time when Lackland’s second officer’s club, a former mess hall, was a hot spot for famous performers, “Harry James and the Ink Spots.”
Countless comments about him indicate that many who know McClure described him as a man who always cared deeply about customer service and one with a heart of gold and a memory like a computer.
Club patrons decreased with improvements in civil rights and the racial climate, changing attitudes toward servicemen that attracted them off base and the development of San Antonio entertainment and restaurant districts in the 1960s and 70s.
McClure is a man who for his service has been recognized with numerous awards by commanders at Lackland AFB and by the Texas House of Representative for more than 50 years of outstanding service to Lackland Air Force Base and the state of Texas.
However, one of his most prestigious award came from U.S. president. In 1998, then President William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton recognized McClure with a special letter signed by the president for his leadership, example and dedication to government service.
Ernie is actively involved in St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. He is married to Hazel McClure, is a proud father of three and a grandfather. His hope for African-Americans looking ahead is that people will wake up from hibernation and see the value of education and making us competitive again.
“No one is entitled for anyone to take care of them,” he said. “We must take the first steps as parents and as a people to prepare our youth for life. Do your part to stand up, get that baton and carry it with purpose and pride.”
Her refers to the sacrifices made by many from Black military servicemen to civil rights leaders and calls on mindsets to change.
“Things are better, but not where they should be,” he said. “There is still a lot of work to do in many areas of life, but we must do it if things are going to get better.”