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By Julia Hopper Daniel, For Roane Newspapers
Samuel William Harper, president of the Knoxville College class of 1942, made a farewell speech entitled, “Looking Back with Chins Up,” on May 25, 1942.
“The class of ‘42 will scatter after this day and will embark in various professions,” he said. “Some of us will be immediately united with our brothers in the armed forces of the nation, others will teach, and others will continue in graduate work.”
These words foreshadowed the next 30 years of Harper’s life throughout his service in the military as well as his career in education.
Harper was the son of the late William Julian Hopper Sr. and Minnie Crozier Hopper.
He was the fourth child of this well-known family in Oliver Springs. Harper was born Jan. 20, 1919, in Oliver Springs and grew up on the Black Oak Ridge area, on the outskirts of Oliver Springs, which is now known as Mahoney Road.
As a young boy, he stayed busy building porches and swings. He also worked in the fields on his family farm and rabbit boxed during his early years.
Harper was a member of Little Leaf Baptist Church from an early age. He served in many of the church’s activities.
Harper completed his elementary school years in the Oliver Springs Colored School under the direction of Mayme Carmichael.
During his high school years, he and his sister, Mamie Louise, stayed in Harriman and attended Jamieson High School, which went to the 10th grade.
In the Jamieson High School graduation exercises dated May 14, 1936, Harper was listed as valedictorian.
After Harper graduated from Jamieson, he attended and graduated from Nelson Merry High School in Jefferson City.
Although their family name was Hopper, he and his sister, Mamie Louise, changed the spelling of their last name to Harper.
Upon graduation from Nelson Merry, Harper attended Knoxville College. He married his college sweetheart, Amanda Fleming. Three children were born to them: Sandra Fleming, Henry Fearn and Janice Maria.
Two of the children chose careers in education, and the youngest daughter is a research scientist. His wife, Amanda Fleming, also chose a career in education.
Harper was a dedicated husband, father, counselor and administrator. His hobbies included carpentry, gardening, fishing, painting and singing.
Harper had a large jazz and classical music collection. He was an avid reader and a mentor.
Harper was described as a quiet, reflective person who was a consistent giver and support system for everyone.
After Harper graduated from Knoxville College, he enlisted in the United States Air Force on April 17, 1943.
Harper was one of the black pilots in the U.S. Air Force who trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama.
First Lt. Harper received his silver pilot’s wings after being commissioned at Tuskegee. His sister, Mamie Louise, pinned the wings on him.
After Harper received his training at Tuskegee, he would fly over Oliver Springs in formation and dip his wings. He served as a B-25 pilot during World War II.
More than 950 black pilots became Tuskegee Airmen. The all-black unit of World War II fighter pilots was barred from combat training by the then-segregated U.S. Air Force.
Instead, they were sent to the Tuskegee Institute for training. These pilots achieved admirable records in combat with the enemy despite racial discrimination on their various military bases.
The Tuskegee Airmen helped to advance the American Civil Rights Movement by setting the precedent that would force the American military to begin to fully integrate in 1948 — more than a decade before Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry S Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which abolished racial segregation in the Armed Forces.
Harper was stationed at Mather Field, in Sacramento, Calif., in the 477th Bomb Square Group. The group’s mission was to protect the Pacific Coast as they flew up and down the West Coast.
Perhaps his most significant accomplishments were receiving his B-25 Bomber Pilot status in Tuskegee and making his contribution to the effort to breaking the race barriers in the U.S. military.
The Tuskegee Program also forged a group of men who earn advanced degrees in the fields of law, social policy, polities, medicine, education and finance.
Harper was one of those men.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1947 and attended University of Southern California, where he obtained his master’s degree in education.
Harper was a few hours away from earning a doctorate from UCLA. His teaching career started in 1950 as a math teacher in Jordan High School in the Watts District of Los Angeles.
In 1967, he served as boys vice principal in Mark Twain Junior High School and became principal of John Muir Junior High School in 1969.
At John Muir, he initiated many innovative programs: Preferred Reading, Vail Reading, The Reading Games, Performing Arts, and many others.
Harper stayed there until his death from a massive heart attack on Feb. 22, 1974. He was buried next to his mother at Carter Bluff Cemetery in Oliver Springs.
On May 23, 1976, the parents, students and staff at John Muir Junior High School dedicated the school auditorium in his honor as the Samuel W. Harper Auditorium.
Harper distinguished himself by receiving academic honors during his college years and in post-graduate work.
Harper, with all his accomplishments as a militarist, educator and family man, represented Oliver Springs and his country well. We salute Samuel William Harper as an unsung hero.
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Julia Hopper Daniel is the niece of Samuel William Harper. She lives in Oliver Springs and is involved in the Oliver Springs Historical Society.