From fighter pilot to to fighter for justice

Lincoln Ragsdale gives a speech at Goodwin Stadium at Arizona State University on June 3, 1964. Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Abernathy are also pictured. © Lincoln Ragsdale Jr.


A military hero. An activist for equal housing and job discrimination. A man who fought for civil rights so valiantly he is now considered to be the Martin Luther King Jr. of Arizona.

Lincoln Ragsdale was born July 27, 1926, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His parents, Hartwell and Onlia, were middle-class African-Americans who owned a mortuary passed onto them by Lincoln’s grandfather.

After the Ku Klux Klan lynched his uncle, William Ragsdale Jr.,  the family moved to Ardmore, Oklahoma, to start anew.

Onlia was the president of the  National Association of Colored Women’s Oklahoma chapter. At separate times, his older brother and cousin served as president of the NAACP in Oklahoma.

In 1945, Lincoln broke the glass ceiling when he trained to become a Tuskegee Airman at the Tuskegee Army Air Corps Field in Alabama. This program was the government’s first attempt to integrate the armed forces. Lincoln flew a P-51 Mustang, a fast and historic fighter plane.

In 1983, Lincoln told the Arizona Republic, “I remember when we used to walk through black neighborhoods right after the war and little kids would run up to us and touch our uniforms, ‘Mister, can you really fly an airplane?’ The Tuskegee airmen gave blacks a reason to be proud.”

Lincoln was a proud man who sought justice in a racist world.

Lincoln and his wife Eleanor arrived at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in 1949.

Lincoln Ragsdale at Tuskegee Flying School in Alabama. © Lincoln Ragsdale Jr.

The racial climate of Phoenix in 1949 was toxic for African-American citizens. Five years earlier, Arizona Gov. Ben Moeur held a news conference promising he would prevent African-Americans from settling in Phoenix.

“As a governor of Arizona, I do not suppose to allow this state to be a dumping ground,” said Moeur.

The Phoenix economy had shifted from a distribution center to an industrial city with production of military supplies. The community remained dominantly Anglo.

The Ragsdales set out to force change right away. They became members of the Phoenix branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Phoenix Urban League. The duo helped found the Greater Phoenix Council for Civic Unity.

According to Ann Hart, president of the Maricopa County branch of the NAACP and friend of the Ragsdales’, said, “Dr. Ragsdale opened the the door for black men and fought for economic development.

Lincoln became the city’s first black funeral home owner with his brother Hartwell Ragsdale II, in 1947. Local banks denied them loans, so he arranged a personal loan for $35,000 from a friend.

In 1953, he and Eleanor desegregated the Encanto District, the city’s most well-to-do and racially segregated neighborhood. At the time, neighborhoods were essentially divided by race and income. What became known as the red line

The neighborhood, while not legally segregated, did not allow African-Americans to move in. The realtors in the area would not show homes to people of color or take offers on homes. If they did, the faced heavy fines and criticism from their peers. They believed that, “their presence would undermine the community’s stability and property values.”

With a little grit and some quick thinking, Eleanor used her knowledge as a real estate broker to her advantage. She found a home for her family on West Thomas Road that was perfect.

The neighboring white community did not want them there. She used her pale skin and the shallow views of the white realtors to her advantage. They assumed she was white and would show her homes that her family would not otherwise see.

Eleanor had a white friend purchase the home and  transfer it into Eleanor’s name.

Shortly after moving in, the Ragsdale family awoke to the word “Nigger” spray-painted on their home in large black letters.

Lincoln had already chose to fight against these people when he bought the home. He wasn’t going to stop now.  Rather than having the word removed, he left it. He “wanted to make sure the white folks knew where the Nigga lived,” he had said to Phoenix magazine.

This type of grit and willpower is why Lincoln Ragsdale developed a cadre of admirers.

“My father had the strength to stand up for justice, I think he got  that from being in the Air Force,” said Lincoln Ragsdale Jr. “Redlining and the system couldn’t stop him.”

That same year, Ragsdale funded a federal lawsuit to challenge Phoenix school segregation.

This led Hayzel B. Daniels to file the Phillips case, to help integrate the high school.

Daniels and Phoenix attorney Herbert F Finn. presented their case to Superior Court Judge  Fred C. Struckmeyer Jr. The case was financed by the NAACP, the GPPCU, and none other than the Ragsdales.

They successfully argued the case against segregation in Maricopa County Court

Struckmeyer ruled that the Arizona law permitting school boards to segregate pupils was unconstitutional. This ruling occurred just one year before  Brown v. Board of Education.

Lincoln didn’t dwell on victories he continued on his plight for equality.

He gave an emotional speech at the Scottsdale Democratic Club. An article about his speech was featured on the cover of the Scottsdale Daily Progress with the headline; What it’s Like To Be Black.

“You can understand me intellectually but you can’t understand me emotionally. When it comes to living it. It’s difficult! You don’t have any concept of what it’s like being black. You’ve never had a meaningful experience with a black person.” said Lincoln at the time.

Many saw Lincolns talents as unique.

“He had an uncanny way of delivering his message to share painful things, to get others to see racism,” said Dr. Hart.

The next ten years the civil rights movements continued to grow. As tensions grew so did the sound of Lincoln’s voice.

In 1960, Rev. George G. Brooks and Lincoln joined forces as heads of the Maricopa County branch of the NAACP.

Lincoln and Brooks took their next fight to the banks of the greater Phoenix region. The only jobs African-Americans were given in the regions banks was sweeping floors.

Hire African-Americans, for skills based jobs, they demanded.

“We had to pick out someplace to start the fight, so you had to figure out who you know off first, the king or the subjects? We figured it was best to start at the top,” Lincoln said at the time.

At first the banks president refused to listen. But the fiery Lincoln refused to back down. He marched into his office and scream in his face and stomped around. He once banged his fist so hard on the president’s desk, it cracked.

His commanding presence and determination worked. He was relentless with Patrick and in 1962 the bank hired Wilbur Hankins as the first African American bank teller. Lincoln called his tactics, “creative conflict.”

His style of creative conflict he took to other industries in Arizona such as General Electric and Motorola.

“My dad was a catalyst to integrate and break down barriers that kept black people and minorities out of the system in Arizona,” said Ragsdale Jr.

Hart remembers Lincoln’s “never back down” attitude.

“He lived by the mantra, ‘If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

Monique Stewart is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at


Click here for a Word version of this story and high resolution photos.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *