On this day in 1974, Brigadier General Roscoe “Rock” Cartwright is killed in a plane crash. The tragedy came just as Cartwright was wrapping up an inspirational—but perhaps too-often forgotten—military career.
“I don’t know if it’s our fault for not pushing for him to get more recognition,” his daughter-in-law said. “But he’s not one that would have wanted it. If his name was going to be out there, he would want it to be for maybe encouraging some kid, bringing somebody else up.”
Perhaps Cartwright’s instinct to help others was ingrained in him? When he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1936, he hoped for a career in education.
A life in the military wasn’t even on his radar until he was drafted into the Army. “I recall seeing very few blacks in uniform in Tulsa before World War II,” he would say of this time. “Therefore, being or becoming a soldier did not interest me until the draft was initiated.”
That draft notice proved providential.
Cartwright served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, earning many medals and commendations along the way. His promotion to brigadier general in 1971 would make him the first black general to rise from the ranks of the field artillery. He’d even managed to earn a college degree and an MBA along the way.
But Cartwright seems to have known that his most important legacy lay elsewhere. He was focused on his men. He worked to improve their educational opportunities, and he sought to find them mentors. He would “take you under his wing,” General Roy Bell recently said of his old mentor, and help you navigate your path forward.
Cartwright had once wanted a career in education. Perhaps he found one, in the end?
During the 1950s, Cartwright served as a ROTC instructor in West Virginia. He later mentored young soldiers who were stationed with him at Fort Leavenworth. He created a library and established college courses for military personnel who were serving in Vietnam. He became a founder of the Blue Geese, an informal network of black officers who helped the next generation of soldiers, both professionally and socially.
By October 1974, Cartwright was looking for ways to formalize this effort. The only problem? No one knew what to call the new organization. Thus, the group was called the “No Name Club” at first, and its founding members agreed to think about an official name.
Mere weeks later, Cartwright and his wife were aboard TWA Flight 514 as it flew towards Dulles International Airport. They’d been visiting their daughter for Thanksgiving and were flying home. Tragically, the Boeing 727 ran into some bad weather and crashed into the side of a mountain. Everyone aboard perished.
In an odd twist, some members of the No Name Club were meeting on that very same day, December 1, when they heard of this terrible loss. After that, a name was easy to choose. Their group should be named for Roscoe “Rock” Cartwright, of course.
Today, The ROCKs, Inc. is a mentoring and networking organization with nearly two dozen chapters around the world. It helps young soldiers both professionally and socially. The organization also sponsors a scholarship fund in Cartwright’s name.
And it all started because a young artilleryman understood that investing in people is more important than personal ambition.
RIP, Brigadier General Cartwright.
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Alexa Imani Spencer, Roscoe Cartwright, Late Tulsa Army General and Veteran, to Join Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame on Veterans Day (Black Enterprise; Nov. 9, 2021)
Catherine Reef, African Americans in the Military (2004)
Charles Johnson, Jr., African Americans and ROTC: Military, Naval and Aeroscience Programs at Historically Black Colleges, 1916-1973 (2002)
Susan A. Merkner, ROCKS members show the path for others (U.S. Army website; July 26, 2021)
The History of Roscoe C. Cartwright #129 (Roscoe C. Cartwright #129 Prince Hall Masonic Lodge website)