Photo by Alyse Horn
The Sewickley Cemetery is home to the largest outdoor memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen in the US.
By Alyse Horn
The Tuskegee Airmen were the military’s first black pilots, created by the US Army Air Corps in 1941 after Civil Rights Movement activists pressured President Franklin Roosevelt to open up more opportunities for blacks in the military.
In 1941, fewer than 4,000 African Americans were serving in the military, according to the National WWII Museum. By 1945, more than 1.2 million had been inducted.
During the beginning of WWII, African Americans were viewed as lacking patriotism and intelligence, and were deemed unfit to fight in combat or be a fighter pilot in the military. Social segregation leaked into the military practices as false information from past decades was treated as fact.
“The Tuskegee Airmen were the first to fight the stereotypes, and were simultaneously fighting Jim Crow laws in the US while battling the Nazi’s overseas.”
The Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron sited an Army War College report from 1925 that stated, “Black people weren’t smart enough to be pilots” and “even went so far to suggest that African American’s were too cowardly to be trusted to fly a plane.” The report also included a statement from a senior commander in the Army saying, “The Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first to fight the stereotypes, and were simultaneously fighting Jim Crow laws in the US while battling the Nazi’s overseas. The pilots not only made great strides for the Civil Rights movement, they also helped secure our victory during World War II.
Even after WWII, it still took congress almost 70 years to award the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal, said Regis Bobonis Sr, founder and chair of Tuskegee Airmen of Western Pennsylvania.
The creation of the Tuskegee Airmen marked a transition in the Civil Rights Movement, and eventually led to the desegregation of the United States Military in 1948 through an executive order issued by President Harry Truman.
Out of the almost 1,000 pilots that had the privilege of calling themselves Tuskegee Airmen and the 15,000 ground personnel that kept them in the air, the largest accumulation hailed from Western Pennsylvania.
Bobonis said he began researching the Tuskegee Airmen in 1993 after he joined the Daniel B. Matthews Historical Society in Sewickley, and found that eight airmen had come from the “postage stamp size” town, which triggered his curiosity to keep digging.
Since, he has found that over 90 pilots came from the region, which prompted the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Project placed in Sewickley Cemetery. It was finished in September 2013 and it is the largest tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen anywhere in the country.
“We had some real achievers that impacted the Civil Rights Movement,” Bobonis said.
Out of those men, and one woman, who hailed from the region, four of them came from Pittsburgh’s Northside: Robert Marshall Glass, John Cundieff, James Wiley and Charles Tate.
Tate was from Manchester and graduated from Oliver High School in 1942. After graduation, he enlisted to become a Tuskegee Airmen.
He can be found in the Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, and he received a Distinguished Flying Cross and four Oak Leaf Clusters. He flew 99 missions and was part of many firsts for African American’s during WWII. Not only was he part of “the first unit of black American fighter pilots who trained at Tuskegee,” he also “served under Col. Benjamin O. Davis, the first black graduate from West Point in the 20th Century,” according to a Post-Gazette article publish in 2005.
In the Hall of Valor, his plaque reads that he completed 698 flying hours, 310 were in combat, and he was the flight leader for about 20 missions.
After service with the Tuskegee Airman, Tate re-entered the Army during the Korean War before returning home and settling for a job in the U.S. Postal Service.
Northsider Jesse Finch met Tate over a decade ago when the two were walking into a grocery store. Finch, who was an employee of the Army Corps of Engineers, was wearing his Army jacket when Tate stopped him.
Finch said that Tate told him not to take his job for granted. When Tate retired from the Army, his desire was to become an engineer, but he wasn’t given the opportunity because of his race and was placed in the Post Office. He worked at USPS, eventually becoming the manager of a facility in Homewood.
Tate passed away on November 18, 2005.
The Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron states, “Even after the war, the Tuskegee Airmen continued to fight against racism. They didn’t do this through violence or anger. Rather, they fought racism with the way they lived their lives. Some of these men became civilian pilots, doctors, engineers, teachers, and entrepreneurs.”
Unfortunately, not all airmen were given the same opportunities upon returning home.
This is the first article in a series profiling the famed Tuskegee Airmen of Pittsburgh’s Northside and first appeared on Storyburgh.org. Storyburgh is a not for profit community storytelling platform that seeks to foster discussion and engage the community with under-reported & under-told stories including topics involving humanities such as in social justice, arts & culture, innovation, education & academia, and marginalized demographics.