On Friday evening I hailed an Uber to the Philadelphia Country Club in Gladwyne for the Pennsylvania Eagle Forum’s 2018 Annual Dinner. I had been invited by a friend, and took her up on it so we could catch up and because I know a number of the people who would be there.
Phyllis Shlafly’s Eagle Forum is a patriotic/political organization. Andy Schlafly, one of Phyllis Shlafly’s sons, was in attendance, and he and Bobby Schindler have spoken together in the past. I met Phyllis Schlafly years ago in Washington, and remember growing up my grandmother being an admirer of Schlafly’s various advocacy efforts, particularly on the risk of adopting basically libertarian laws that would de-emphasis natural human relationships in favor of market/commercial rights that themselves would reorder society. I expect within the next few years that a form of the Equal Rights Amendment will be ratified by new states, and that a push will be made to recognize it as the 28th constitutional amendment.
Corey Lewandowski was the keynote speaker. I was not impressed by him either in substance or style. Far too much hero-worship of the presidency and a great deal of self-aggrandizement. Congressman Glenn Thompson joined a half dozen or so candidates for office, and he was great. I met Thompson when I was a student at Penn State and when he was still Centre County Republican Party chairman, just before he won his 5th district office. Thanks to Pennsylvania redistricting, Centre County has now been split in two, and Rep. Thompson’s district designation becomes the 15th this November.
The highlight of the evening was in hearing from Dr. Eugene Richardson, one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen:
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside the army. …
Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African-American had been a U.S. military pilot. In 1917, African-American men had tried to become aerial observers, but were rejected. African-American Eugene Bullard served in the French air service during World War I, because he was not allowed to serve in an American unit. Instead, Bullard returned to infantry duty with the French.
The racially motivated rejections of World War I African-American recruits sparked more than two decades of advocacy by African-Americans who wished to enlist and train as military aviators. The effort was led by such prominent civil rights leaders as Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, labor union leader A. Philip Randolph, and Judge William H. Hastie. Finally, on 3 April 1939, Appropriations Bill Public Law 18 was passed by Congress containing an amendment by Senator Harry H. Schwartz, designating funds for training African-American pilots. The War Department managed to put the money into funds of civilian flight schools willing to train black Americans.
War Department tradition and policy mandated the segregation of African-Americans into separate military units staffed by white officers, as had been done previously with the 9th Cavalry, 10th Cavalry, 24th Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Regiment.
It was an honor to meet Dr. Richardson and some of his brothers-in-arms. It was surreal to hear him speak about President Truman as a contemporary rather than purely as a historical figure. (Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ended segregation of the armed forces.) And it was a gift to speak with him briefly afterwards. Dr. Richardson is 94 or thereabouts, and this year my grandfather—who also served in World War II in the U.S. Army Air Corps—would have turned 91. I thought of him as we spoke.
Tuskegee became the center for training African Americans for air operations and was the only source of black military pilots in World War II. Today, the airfield where they once trained is known as the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
Richardson’s interest in flight began in 1930, when as a young boy his father and a friend took him along to see the Colored Air Circus, a group of black aviators performing an air show in Mansfield, Ohio. At 17 he decided to join the Army Air Corps in order to become a pilot. A few months later – at the age of 18 – he completed basic training and went on to Tuskegee Army Airfield for 40 weeks of pilot training. He later received gunnery training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and went on to Walterboro, S.C., for combat training.
While he and 37 others finished their flight training in March 1945, the war ended in the European theater just two months later so they never saw any combat. Of the 38 pilots in his class, 23, including Richardson, graduated as fighter pilots and 15 as B-25 bomber pilots.
Richardson was discharged in 1946 and returned to Philadelphia, where he finished his high school degree and did his undergraduate work at Temple University. He also earned master’s and doctor of education degrees from Penn State. Pursuing a career in education rather than aviation because of the lack of career opportunities for black pilots, he became a high school principal in Philadelphia’s school system. He is now retired and tours the United States and Canada speaking about and teaching the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.
His experiences have inspired a generation of African Americans, including his son, Eugene Richardson III, who became a fighter pilot and an airline executive.
In an interview at Penn State Dr. Richardson reflected: “Every way we can possibly— every vehicle we can possibly use—to let the world know that people are people. Because they’ve had different experiences, because they come from different environments, doesn’t make them any different. They still have the same basic needs and the same basic desires. And we need to help people realize that.”