Nine Tuskegee Airmen who fought for their country and equality have been memorialized at Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
A bronze plaque was unveiled Saturday bearing their names: James Cannon, Gilbert Cargill, William Johnston Jr., Norman Proctor, Wayman Scott, Ferrier White, William Williams Jr., William Young, and Perry Young Jr.
“The men we honor today were men of peace, not withstanding their lethality from the air,” said guest speaker Delbert Spurlock.
His childhood home once stood where the park is today. “This is my spot,” he said, pointing up and down East Vine Street where neighbors taught him about the world.
Spurlock, now 76, said the park and new monument fittingly represent the peace and freedom King sought.
The struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen was one that predated King’s role in the civil rights movement by two generations. During World War II, African-American pilots fought for their right to fly in the U.S. Army’s Air Forces, forming the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group, nicknamed the Red Tails.
Together they numbered about 1,000 black pilots and 2,500 support personnel.
Glamor was part of flying in those early days of aviation, which is why Washington didn’t want to put black men in the air, Spurlock said. The white establishment was terrified of highly-visible, heroic black soldiers.
The Tuskegee Airmen worked and trained together against enormous hostility. “They understood that it was a tremendous, tremendous fight to get them the opportunity to be airmen,” Spurlock said.
The unit was created under the threat of a march on the nation’s capital if black people were denied the chance to fight at the height of the war. They were “some of the most rabid advocates for equality of their time,” he said.
Spurlock, a graduate of Oberlin College, is a former journalist and lawyer. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to serve as general counsel to the U.S. Army, where he was assigned to manpower and reserve affairs; under President H.W. Bush, he was appointed deputy secretary of labor.
The dedication of the new memorial was part of Oberlin’s Juneteenth celebration, which this year carried the theme “Heroes and Heroines of Oberlin: A Homecoming Celebration for the Tuskegee Airmen.”
It arose from the work of Margaret Christian, Shirley Williams, and Martha Wilkins, as well as the deceased Richard Williams. In May, group members told city council they simply wanted to see the service of family members recognized at long last.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.