York College honors Tuskegee Airmen with art exhibit

Tuskegee Airman William Wheeler shares his Air Force experiences with an audience at York College. Photo by Nat Valentine
By Ivan Pereira

When Dr. Roscoe Brown and his fellow pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen troop fought overseas in World War II, he said his men knew they were fighting for a country that judged them because of the color of their skin.

Nevertheless, the 332nd Fighter Group pressed on and defended America with honor and now York College is celebrating their legacy with a special art exhibit. During the show’s opening gala on April 21, Brown, the former president of Bronx Community College, said he and his comrades could not have asked for a better acknowledgement.

“Many people know about the Tuskegee Airmen because of the many programs on television, but many of our young people don’t,” Brown said.

The exhibit features medals, artwork, tutorials and interactive learning lessons on America’s first black Air Force group that was created in 1941.

“Honoring the Tuskegee Airmen helps to understand the struggles and the trials and tribulations many African Americans had not only in the Air Force but also in other parts of the military.”

Brown was joined by comrades Span Watson, William Wheeler and Wilfred DeFour for the town hall discussion at the college’s performing arts center to share their experiences.

In 1941, Congress passed legislation that required the U.S. Army Air Corps to set up an all-black combat unit. The Air Force established a military base in Tuskegee, Ala., to train black pilots for air combat for World War II and the soldiers flew hundreds of important missions during the war in Europe.

Wheeler recalled how the pilots spent months training for their missions at the U.S. Air Force base in Tuskegee. The veteran remarked that he and his comrades worked hard to be the best pilots even though they lived in segregated communities across the nation.

“I started searching myself. I said to myself, ‘Why did I get into this in the first place?’” he said. “I determined it is my country also and I decided I’m going to fight for this country as well.”

The four said they were honored that the school recognized their hard work not only on the battlefield but also during the dawn of the civil rights era.

DeFour said the Tuskegee Airmen received letters of congratulations from army officials and politicians for years and that made him feel proud. Wheeler remarked that the accolades and news about their service eventually prompted President Harry Truman to desegregate the armed forces in with an executive order in 1948.

“To me, that’s what swung the pendulum into the other direction,” he said of Truman’s decision.

Watson said the country has progressed significantly in terms of civil rights since the World War II era. In addition to the nation having a black president, Watson said minorities are becoming leading figures in other areas, such as business, sports and literature.

“America has seen its bad, bad days. From now on, it’s going to be, ‘Yes, we can do it,’” he said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

More from Around New York