They fought for the right to fly the skies in U.S. Army missions in World War II.
Now nine Oberlin men will be forever remembered in a plaque that will be unveiled during the city’s Juneteenth Festival.
James Cannon, Gilbert Cargill, William Johnston Jr., Norman Proctor, Wayman Scott, Ferrier White, William Williams Jr., William Young, and Perry Young Jr. belonged to the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
The group was comprised of the first African-American men allowed to become pilots, mechanics, navigators, and aircraft support crew. Educated at Tuskegee University in Alabama, they formed the Army’s 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group.
On Monday, city council lauded the work of Margaret Christian, Shirley Williams, and Martha Wilkins to create a memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen.
Christian has argued passionately for years that the airmen deserve a monument in their honor but was told there was no funding. More recently, finance director Sal Talarico helped put aside money.
The monument is a posthumous victory for former New Russia Township trustee Richard Williams, who toiled for years to ensure his brother, William Williams Jr., and fellow airmen would one day be recognized.
Shirley Williams carried on the work after her husband died in August 2015. “He knew all these people were from Oberlin,” she said. “They lived in Oberlin, they graduated from Oberlin schools. When the opportunity came… they were able to step up. They were able to serve their country.”
Wilkins said she was just 17 when her brother, William Johnston Jr., earned his wings. At the time, she didn’t understand how black pilots signified a huge change in U.S. military policy — men of color were not allowed to fly until 1940.
After exiting the service, Johnston continued to face discrimination. Wilkins said she watched as he was rejected time and again by commercial airlines who refused to hire black pilots.
Eventually he was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration. Later, Johnston became a corporate pilot and taught many Oberlin residents the art of flying.
“I’m so proud that my brother was here at Oberlin and chose this town to live in, and put all his effort out into the world,” she said.
Christian said airline industry discrimination continues to this day. She cited a lawsuit against United Airlines in which black pilots allege they were passed over for management promotions.
“They still haven’t broken the glass ceiling,” she said.
The Juneteenth Festival, celebrating the 1865 date when the last slaves in America were freed, will be held this year on Saturday, June 10 on Tappan Square. The theme is “Heroes and Heroines of Oberlin: A Homecoming Celebration for the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Prior to the festival, a Memorial Day ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. on Monday, May 29 at Wright Park. A wreath will be laid for Ferrier White, who died in Italy.
A Potter’s Field celebration will take place at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 4 at Westwood Cemetery, where a wreath will be laid and a tombstone will be placed at the unmarked grave of John Ramsey. He was the founder of Russ African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oberlin and helped to build First Church. Wreaths will also be placed for Tuskegee Airmen James Cannon and William Johnson Jr., as well as Major Margaret Barnes of Oberlin.
All the wreaths will be red and white to represent the red tails of the planes of the Tuskegee Airmen.
A Maafa celebration will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, June 9 at Westwood Cemetery. Maafa, also known as the Holocaust of Enslavement, is a national celebration commemorating the pain, suffering, and loss of life of Africans in the Diaspora. Observers will continue the tradition of prayers and solemn songs at the grave of Lee Harvey Dobbins. This year there will be a gun salute by the 5th U.S. Colored Troops to honor all the servicemen buried at Westwood.
The Juneteenth Festival will run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on June with a Tuskegee Airmen presentation at 10 a.m. The day will feature trolley rides, a parade, music, food booths, reenactors, and more.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.