The aviation and business world lost a legend and a pioneer Wednesday, January 27. Retired Lt. Col. Lee “Buddy” Archer Jr. passed away at the age of 90.
Archer, a member of the distinguished Tuskegee Airmen, is the only black ace pilot on record, having shot down five enemy planes in WWII. He left New York University where he was studying international relations to apply for pilot training in the U.S. Army Air Corps but was denied. At the time, the military didn’t believe that blacks had the intelligence, character, or leadership ability to fly aircraft. But after learning that an airbase in Tuskegee, Alabama was training black pilots, he immediately joined and, in 1943, became a second lieutenant and one of the members of the 302nd Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, aka Redtails because of the red painted spinners and tails on their Mustang aircraft.
Archer flew 169 combat missions—three times the number of missions white fighter pilots typically flew—including bomber cover, convoy escort, scrambles, reconnaissance, and strafing. After the war, he became chief of the Instrument Instructors School at the Tuskegee Army Air Field and completed his education at UCLA in Los Angeles, California. He earned a master’s degree from NYU and was given an honorary Ph.D. from King College.
His post-military career was no less outstanding. Archer broke racial barriers in the 1970s and ‘80s as one of only a few high-ranking corporate executives at a major corporation. He joined General Foods Corp. in 1970 as manager of Urban Affairs. After becoming director of that division, he was appointed president of Vanguard Capital Corp., a General Foods’ small business investment arm. He was then promoted to chairman and CEO of Vanguard. By 1975, he had become a General Foods vice president and was responsible for North Street Capital Corp., a specialized small business investment company that funded Essence Communications and Black Enterprise magazine.
In 1980, Archer was elected a General Foods corporate vice president and served as chair of Hudson Commercial Corp., another General Foods venture capital corporation; North Street Capital Corp.; and General Foods’ Urban Affairs Department. In 1985, he was an adviser to the late Reginald Lewis, helping him craft the 1987 business deal that created TLC Beatrice, the largest black-owned and -managed company in the country. After retiring from General Foods, he founded the venture capital firm Archer Asset Management.
Said Black Enterprise chairman and founder Earl G. Graves Sr., “Lee Archer was a dear friend and colleague and will be sorely missed. His contributions to our country are legend—first as a family man, a hero fighter pilot, a member of the renowned Tuskegee airmen, and a visionary corporate executive. During his long career with General Foods, he was the go-to person—whether it was a question about stock price, an acquisition, or improving diversity within corporate America. He left behind a great legacy. I have lost a true friend and adviser.”
In 2007, Archer and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the country, awarded to an individual who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity, and national interest of the country. He was also one of the Tuskegee Airmen invited to the White House to witness President Obama’s inauguration last year.