For students and graduates of August Martin High School, the name’s significance far surpasses letters emblazoned on the front of a school building. It exemplifies legacy, tradition and achievement. It represents a man that everyone that walks through the doors can look to as an example of triumph.
In 1971, the school’s named was changed from Woodrow Wilson to August Martin, honoring the country’s first black commercial pilot.
The Jamaica high school currently finds itself is on the list of schools planning to be turned around, meaning the school may close and reopen under a new name.
“If we allow August Martin to be taken off this building, what it does is simply does away with history,” said Ricky Davis, a commercial pilot and teacher of aviation at the school. “It does away with the struggle of our ancestors.”
The predominantly black school is just three miles from John F. Kennedy International Airport and the only school that allows students the opportunity to man an aircraft. Approximately 300 students are enrolled in the aviation program. Every Thursday, Davis takes his class to fly, sometimes solo, allowing students to obtain hours towards a pilot license.
“I would never be in favor of getting rid of the name August Martin,” said Councilmember James Sanders. “I would be very much in favor of keeping tradition; keeping a legacy going.”
Martin, a Tuskegee Airman, was killed in 1968 while delivering goods to Biafra during the Nigerian civil war.
“That name means something, because if it wasn’t for a man like that, guess what, [Chancellor Dennis Walcott] wouldn’t have his job,” said Cleavon Evans August Martin’s Alumni Association president. “You want to take that name and destroy it? How disrespectful to this community.”
A handful of students attended Monday, April 16’s public hearing on the school’s potential closure proudly displaying their pilot stripes earned at the school.
“[The DOE] doesn’t understand that this school is rooted in the community. They don’t understand that [Martin] learned to fly in Tuskegee, they don’t understand that he died bringing goods to children in Biafra,” said Leo Casey, the UFT vice president for high schools. “They think that a name is like a number, that you can just change it. Well, this school has history and this school cannot die.”