Jefferson, born in Detroit, Michigan, attended Craft Elementary School, Munger Intermediate School, and Chadsey High School, graduating in 1938, the only African-American to take college preparatory classes. In 1942, he graduated from Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry and Biology. On September 23, 1942, he was sworn into the United States Army Reserves, volunteering but not accepted for flight training. Taking a job as an analytical chemist for three months, he entered the graduate school of Howard University, applying again to the US Army Air Force.
Called up for flight training in April 1943, Jefferson received orders to report to Tuskegee Army Air Field to begin flight training. Receiving his pilots wings and officer’s commission at Tuskegee, he was assigned to the 332nd “Red Tail” Fighter group at the Ramitelli Airfield near Foggia, Italy, flying the P-51 Mustang. Assigned to a fighter escort wing protecting bombing missions of the US 15th Air Force, his job was to attack key ground targets and guard the bombing mission against enemy Nazi Luftwaffe fighters.
During his 19th mission over Toulon, southern France on August 12, 1944, while attacking a radar installation he was shot down. Parachuting to safety and landing within a forest, he was immediately captured by Nazi ground troops. He was sent to prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III in Poland, a specialist Luftwaffe-run camp for captured Allied Air Force personnel. During his period of internment, Jefferson comments that he was treated like any other Air Force officer by his German captors. He was then moved to Stalag VII-A, just outside Dachau. After the Russian Army entered Poland, the prisoners were marched to Munich by the Germans, where they were freed by General George Patton‘s US Third Army.
Jefferson then served as an instrument instructor at Tuskegee Army airfield, until it closed in 1946. He remained in the US Air Force reserves, finally retiring in 1969. In 1947 Jefferson received his teaching certificate from Wayne State University, and began teaching elementary school science for the Detroit Public School System. He received his M.A. degree in education in 1954, and was appointed assistant principal in 1969. He retired in 1979 as an assistant principal, after over 30 years’ service.
In 1995, Jefferson was enshrined in the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame. In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded Jefferson with a Purple Heart for being wounded while being shot down over German occupied France. On March 29, 2007, Jefferson attended a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, where he and all the other members of the Tuskegee Airmen (and their widows) were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their service.