The Tuskegee Airmen helped alter the perceptions of a backward country and its like-minded military. In honor of Black History Month, this is their story, as told by the Main Liners who lived it.
Photo by Jared Castaldi
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By 1940, Roscoe Draper had earned his private pilot’s license. While at Hampton Institute in Virginia, the Haverford resident was selected for the secondary course at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. He’d received his flight instructor rating by 1942. Then he applied for the U.S. Army Air Corps, and his patriotic plea to enter World War II was irreverently rejected.
“I was ready,” he says. “I wanted to fly.”
Draper never reapplied for military service. “It seemed they were done with me, and I was done with them,” he says.
Dr. James R. Williams, meanwhile, was rejected at a South Philadelphia recruiting office. Weighing 170 pounds, he was deemed “too heavy.” Williams suspected, then and now, that his “hue didn’t meet their criteria.”
Williams trained for two weeks, running at night from his Bryn Mawr home to Wayne and back, even sweating off calories in his aunt’s third-floor apartment in Virginia. He returned to the recruiting office weighing just a pound less—and was accepted. “They couldn’t say no anymore,” Williams says. “I figured if I came back hungry and skinny, they couldn’t say no.”
Among America’s first black military airmen in World War II, Williams fought two wars—one overseas and the other at home. In the process, he helped to right a backward-thinking country and its like-minded military. It’s taken decades, but now the Tuskegee Airmen are celebrated. All those associated with the Army Air Corps’ segregated Tuskegee Experiment in Alabama were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in March 2007. The nonprofit Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. boasts 55 chapters nationwide, including one in Philadelphia. An outdoor mural was dedicated in West Philly, and able survivors are much-sought-after speakers.
“It never crossed my mind that we’d be considered pioneers,” says Draper, who turns 92 in May. “Where we were able to make a difference, we made it. I’m grateful to the country for giving us the opportunity to fly. I was taught at the government’s expense, or else I wouldn’t have made it as I was. I owe a debt of gratitude.”
Though denied entry as a cadet, Draper became one of the first 10 black men selected as civilian flight instructors. He taught Army Air Corps cadets at Tuskegee’s Moton Field from 1942 to 1945.
Now 84, Williams became one of a handful of “triple-rated” Tuskegee airmen. He earned all three wings—in navigation, as a bombardier and as a pilot—between 1943 and 1945. “I still have them, and I can wear them,” he says.
Today, Draper is back living in Haverford, and Williams in Bryn Mawr. Others from around the Main Line also had Tuskegee ties, most notably aviation legend “Chief” Charles Alfred Anderson, who died in 1996. His mother was a steward in Draper’s church in Bryn Mawr. Local Tuskegee pilots also included Bill Broadwater, also of Bryn Mawr; Thomas Love and Joseph Jenkins, both from Ardmore; William Rice of Swarthmore; and Yeadon’s Curtis Samuel.
In 1941, Anderson flew First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a Piper Cub for a visit to a veterans’ hospital in Tuskegee. It was the catalyst for the Tuskegee Experiment. “She was truly a Democrat,” says Draper. “She believed all men have equal rights.”
That year, her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ordered the Army Air Corps to accept blacks, though they weren’t allowed to train with whites. And on June 23, 1941, the government began building Tuskegee Army Air Field.
Growing up in the 1930s, Draper knew Anderson. Many knew him. After all, he was a black man flying airplanes. “He was Chief Anderson because he was the chief pilot [at Tuskegee],” Draper says of his mentor. “I admired his desire so much.”
As it turns out, Anderson used to get his hair cut in the Ardmore barbershop owned by Williams’ uncle. As a boy, Williams played football with Broadwater, a bombardier at Tuskegee who eventually became a longtime Federal Aviation Administration executive and a highly regarded airspace expert. Broadwater turned 85 last month. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.