ABINGTON — It’s a legacy worth sharing.
“Young people need to know what people of color have done,” said Tuskegee Airman Class 45A pilot Dr. Eugene Richardson Jr.
Richardson was one of several Tuskegee Airmen who spoke during a Black History Month event Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Abington Free Library about the Tuskegee, Ala., Army Air Corps program to train African-Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft during World War II.
Richardson described how he discovered his love of flying at an air show in Mansfield, Ohio when he was 5 years old and pursued his dream to become an U.S. Army Air Corps. pilot.
“Since I was a little kid, I wanted to fly an airplane,” he said. “[It was a] dream come true.”
As a child growing up in the 1920s, he called the planes “noisy birds” and was mesmerized when the planes landed “and people got out of them.”
Richardson was a pre-aviation cadet in 1943, going to Mississippi for basic training and arriving at Tuskegee in January 1944.
He finished flight school in March 1945 and became an U.S. Air Force pilot. However, he “did not see combat” as the war ended two months later.
“When Hitler heard I was coming over, he surrendered,” he joked.
After the war ended, Richardson went on to use the GI Bill to attend college. He later taught math and science, and eventually became a middle school principal.
Richardson also recognized the efforts of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and Eugene Bullard, African-American trailblazers with aviation.
African-Americans were not able to fly for the U.S. military prior to 1940, according to the Tuskegee Airmen website. Civil rights organizations and African-American media outlets pushed for soldiers to be able to serve their country in the skies. The “all African-American pursuit squadron” was created in 1941 in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Alma Bailey is a 94-year-old former nurse in the Cadet Nursing Corps at Tuskegee.
She told those attending the library talk that ending up at the “institute” in Alabama wasn’t initially part of her life plan.
“I didn’t want to be a nurse; I wanted to be an opera singer,” she said.
Bailey was born in Kentucky, and although there were segregated schools, she recalled playing with “white kids in the neighborhood.”
“Believe it or not, we were partially integrated there,” Bailey said.
While attending Lincoln High School, she later found out that “Uncle Sam wanted to train teenage high school girls to become nurses. That information was only delivered to the white school.”
She added the African-American teachers “confronted the white superintendent” about the matter, and got it resolved.
When given the choice of where to serve, she said her father was a “graduate of Tuskegee,” and decided to follow in his footsteps.
During her time at the gated base, formally known as the “Tuskegee Institute,” she learned several specialties including psychiatry and otolaryngology, which is ear, nose and throat medicine.
Bailey also saw and experienced the hardships of the rural South during the 1940s.
Recalling one particular experience, she said she was part of a group of cadets who went into town to buy shoes that were on sale for $1 for an upcoming USO dance. They traveled into the town together, which was about 10 or 15 blocks from the institute, wearing white uniforms so “everyone knew we were students from the college.”
Her group tried on shoes while being “waited on” by “three white women” when “a nice clean maid came into the door.”
Bailey remembered the woman touching a dress as she looked at the garment on the rack.
“She didn’t take it off the rack, she just pulled it to look at it, and all three of these white ladies stopped and ran over there and started yelling at her,” she said. “‘You know you’re not supposed to come in here and touch anything. Nothing.’”
Bailey and her fellow cadets “jumped real quick with our little white uniforms on and we flew back to the dormitory.”
“We didn’t get the shoes,” she said. “We got scared and we got to the dormitory and we started crying.”
It’s a moment that she said haunts her to this day.
“The reason why we were crying is because we felt bad that we left that one black lady being beaten up by this white woman and we was just wondering should we have stayed and defended her?” she said. “But that is still on my mind today and that’s 70 some years ago.”
Despite the obstacles she faced, Bailey said she was grateful for the opportunity to serve.
“It was just an honor to be there,” she said. “It was an honor to serve Uncle Sam ... whether they wanted us or not, it was a good experience and gave me an education.”
Melvin Payne, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, made a similar observation.
“They didn’t want black men and women in the service,” Payne said. “I mean with all the skills, they didn’t want us.”
A member in the audience asked Payne why the institute was located in Alabama as opposed to somewhere above the Mason-Dixon line.
“The whole Tuskegee Airmen experience was supposed to fail,” Payne said. “It was set up to fail.”
Payne expressed his appreciation to the pilots at Tuskegee, but he had to give credit to the thousands of other servicemen and women working in Alabama during that time.
He said there were approximately 15,000 nurses, cooks, pilots, and mechanics.
“Most people think about just pilots when they think about Red Tails and the Tuskegee Airmen,” he said. “It was much much, more than that.”
“For those that did not serve and wanted to be private pilots, no one would take them,” Payne said. “So one of the reasons why they ended up being principals or working for the post office, because no one would allow them to be a commercial pilot. … They wouldn’t be accepted. It was an amazing time.”
During the lecture, Richardson donned a congressional gold medal with a red, white and blue ribbon. He said it was awarded to all Tuskegee Airmen in 2006 by President George W. Bush.
Payne emphasized the importance of continuing to share their stories, as well as the stories of the four other living Tuskegee Airmen in the Greater Philadelphia chapter.
“When they’re no longer able to come out, and talk, then we need to make sure that their lives last forever,” Payne said.
"Keep the legacy going,” is our priority, Payne said.
Payne said the organization “supports STEM programs,” allows children and teens ages 8 to 17 years old to take part in “flying excursions.”
He also told audience members the organization published “Tuskegee in Philadelphia: Rising to the Challenge,” which chronicled the lives of airmen and women from the Philadelphia area.
He said the book was released earlier this month on Amazon. There was a book signing event on Feb. 6 at West Chester University.
Book sale proceeds will go toward scholarships for students. The Greater Philadelphia chapter has a $3,500 scholarship for Delaware State University which had the “original black pilot training” program.
Abington resident Yolanda Moran was one of about 85 people who attended Sunday’s lecture, and expressed her appreciation to the Tuskegee airmen and women.
“I just wanted to say Ms. Bailey and Dr. Richardson thank you for your service, your courage and your advocacy and all that you did in such a time of turmoil and segregation,” Moran said. “Thank you for sharing your experience and sharing the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Mimi Satterthwaite, the library’s head of reference, said this was an opportunity to highlight achievements during Black History Month, but it also allowed participants to learn from the people who lived during this groundbreaking period during World War II.
“It reaches well beyond Abington … and it gives us an opportunity to have dialogue and conversations about history, about current events, about how we can be leaders and stand up for things that we believe in,” Satterthwaite said.
“Sharing their story is an American story, not a black history story,” he said. “So it’s American history, and by sharing that American history, people will look at it, and hopefully not repeat the same things that they’ve done in the past so that we can make us all better as we move forward.”
For more information about the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., visit www.taiphila.org.
This article was updated to reflect that Richardson became a U.S. Army Air Corps. pilot after he completed training, not an Air Force pilot.