City mulls renaming Jamaica street after Tuskegee pilots

Photo courtesy Ruben Wills
By Rich Bockmann

York College in Jamaica is home to CUNY’s aviation school, and students there may soon have some inspiration close by from those who paved the way for their high-flying aspirations.

The City Council is considering a proposal to rename South Road, the street separating Jamaica and South Jamaica, after the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed World War II pilots who overcame racism and served their country with distinction.

“I think a street … in a black neighborhood would be an inspiration to not only black children, but to all children to be inspired and to say, ‘I can do it, too!’” airman Dabney Montgomery testified last week at a Parks Committee hearing about the street renaming proposal.

Montgomery, who was almost lynched as a young man for trying to vote in the South and provided security for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 march to Montgomery, Ala., brought to the hearing a 1925 report by the U.S. Army War College that said black pilots were physiologically ill-suited to be pilots.

The elderly vet, dressed in a dark suit and wearing a blue Tuskegee cap, told committee members how the pilots had to struggle not only to overcome stereotypes, but also dealt with heavy German gunfire and the onslaught of ash brought on by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near their camp.

“Behind that was this report that black men could not take it and could not stand terrific bombardment by the enemy,” he said. “It was in this atmosphere that in our minds we said we will fight … and we not only fought but we won!”

Patt Terrelongue, president of the Claude B. Govan Tri-State Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., said she grew up in the Jamaica area, where many airmen and their families moved to in the 1950s.

She said the veterans were on par with the famous jazz musicians who called southeast Queens home in terms of the admiration the Tuskegee Airmen inspired.

“Having that positive reinforcement, we always felt blessed,” she said. “They guided us. They nurtured us, even though we were wild children.”

City Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica), who is sponsoring the bill to rename the stretch of South Road between Merrick Boulevard and Remington Street “Tuskegee Airmen Way,” said the area is one notorious for prostitution, drugs and gangs, but thinks the proposed street name would help to uplift the area.

“To rename South Road to something as noble as Tuskegee Airmen Way does more to help us just rebrand, if you will, but helps us to let all the young men and women that are coming up know that this is something to look forward to,” he said.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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