By Juan Soto
Queens said goodbye to one of its adopted and most famous sons.
Clayton Lawrence, a pioneering pilot member of the first group of African-American aviators who fought in World War II, died Sept. 8 at Jamaica Hospital due to cardiac arrest.
He was one of the bombardiers of the group that later became known as Tuskegee Airmen.
The wake for Lawrence was held at the Springfield Gardens United Methodist Church United Lawrence Sept. 18. He was laid to rest at Calverton National Cemetery in Riverhead, L.I.
Lawrence was 90.
“He had a military ceremony,” said Virginia Hardy, one of his daughters. “It was dignifying.”
Lawrence, a Brooklyn native who moved to Springfield Gardens in 1955, was arrested when he protested against black officers not being permitted to enter the Freeman Army Airfield in Indiana in 1945.
During the so-called Freeman Field Mutiny, 162 black officers were arrested, some more than once, in an attempt to break down the racial barrier of the all-white men’s club.
The episode, according to historians, contributed to the eventual desegregation of the Army.
Lawrence was one of the first black officers placed in the 477th Bomb Group. He was an active member of the National Organization of Turkegee Airman, Inc.
In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded about 300 Tuskegee Airmen, Lawrence included, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
Lawerence also received a congressional award presented by U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica).
The Tuskegee Airmen fought the Nazis internationally and discrimination domestically.
“They went to war and fought,” Hardy said. “Then they came home and fought the second battle: racism.”
Hardy said her father didn’t talk much about his experience to her or her three siblings.
But when she was having difficulties with her advanced degree in administration, planning and social policy at Harvard University, Lawrence stepped in and told her about his struggles back then.
It was 1990.
“He basically never spoke about Tuskegee Airman until I had problems at school,” said Hardy. “He then told me his story.”
Hardy said the struggle his father and his fellow pilots went through “took my mind off my situation and I ended up graduating.”
When Lawrence was discharged from active duty to the military reserves, he went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Brooklyn College.
He was then called to serve as a bombardier in the B29’s Strategic Air Command in the Korean War.
Lawrence met his wife, Mathilda, while at Brooklyn College. They married in 1949 right after graduation. They were together until Mathilda died in 1979. He was a tax assessor for the New York City Finance Administration for 27 years until he retired.
In 2012, Lawrence and other Tuskegee Airmen joined President Barack Obama for a screening of the film “Red Tails,” a World War II movie profiling some of the Tuskegee veterans.
“They made their mark,” his daughter said.
Reach reporter Juan Soto by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4564.