Tuskegee Airmen celebrate 70 years

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In an effort to bring awareness to their contributions, the Daniel B. Historical Society and the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Institute celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Tuskegee Airmen with a weekend chocked full of free and family-friendly activities geared toward educating and empowering those in attendance.

RedTailedP51C
THE RED TAILED P-51C MUSTANG (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“This is something that isn’t in our history books. The majority of the airmen came from Pittsburgh and over 100 from western Pa,” said Terry Bradford, president of the Sewickley-based Daniel B. Historical Society, an organization that strives to promote and preserve the educational history of African-Americans in the Sewickley Valley, and trustee of the Tuskegee Memorial Committee.

Despite having to cancel Friday activities because of rain, Bradford said the two days, Saturday and Sunday, “were a great success because it gave people the chance to say thank you to the airmen for what they did. It gave a lot of people the chance to get things signed like hats. Vets came and there were lines of people to see the airmen. The airmen were overwhelmed because they didn’t know they meant that much. Everyone was talking and laughing there was no segregation there was just proud Americans.

“It was well worth it because these are our real heroes not athletes, singers and actors. I think this was the best thing we could’ve done.”

She estimates there were 5,000 people there over the two day event. Michell Higgenbotham, one of eight pilots from Sewickley was unable to attend because they were not able to raise enough money to bring him.

“There shouldn’t be any say in that (bringing Higgenbotham here) because this is history. This is our history.

“These men really worked hard and they deserve something. We need to showcase the accomplishments of African-Americans,” Bradford continued.

The celebration was held at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin June 2-3 and featured the Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron’s Rise Above Traveling Exhibits that tells the story of the first Black aviators in the US military and how they battled against the Nazi’s and against the prejudices of people in the United States.

The event consisted of two components, One was a rare, red-tailed P-51C Mustang plane like the airmen flew against the Nazi’s in World War II. Historians was on hand throughout the weekend to share the history of the plane with attendees. Secondly, a 53-foot long customized semi trailer fit with a climate controlled 30 to 35 seat movie theater featured the film, “Rise Above,” which tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. It also allowed viewers to feel what it’s like to pilot a mustang plane.

Other highlights during the weekend included a salute to the military, performances by drum and bugle corps, car and motorcycle cruises, live entertainment, food and merchandise vendors, and a health fair featuring the Highmark Direct Mobile Unit.

“This gives people who come different things to do throughout the weekend. I hope Pittsburgh embraces this. I hope we get the support to make this wonderful,” Bradford said. “This is something that I feel proud about. We’re struggling with a lot of things nowadays and this will give people another look at African-Americans and their contributions. We should be proud of this.”

Mitchell Higgenbotham is proud of this accomplishments that he made as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen and he is glad that the group is starting to get the loads of recognition it so rightly deserved.

“This has meant a whole lot. I never envisioned this becoming such a big part of my life. We were just like all the other pilots. We just wanted to win the war. We didn’t think about history or being heroes,” said Higgenbotham, 91, who resides about 75 miles from Los Angeles in Dana Point, Calif. He was born in Amherst , Va and moved to Sewickley after his father got a job at a steel mill.

Higgenbotham got bit by the aviation bug while members of the Junior Birdmen of America, a model plane club. He began active duty in the air force during the summer of 1942 and graduated in 1945 from Tuskegee Army Air Field, near Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, as a member of the class TE-44-K.

After graduation, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and was an original member of the 477th Bomber Group. Higgenbotham was one of about 1,000 pilots—and eight from Sewickley who became the first Blacks to serve as pilots in the military.

The eight Tuskegee Airmen from Sewickley are: Higgenbotham and his brother Robert, Jim Addison, William Johnston, William Curtis, Jr., Curtis Branch, Frank Hailstock and William Gilliam. The Higgenbothams and Johnston are the only surviving Tuskegee Airmen from Sewickley. The Higgenbothams and four others served as pilots during World War II while two worked as technicians on the planes.

“It was a long, drawn out process,” said Higgenbotham about his experiences as a Tuskegee Airmen. “We were treated badly. We fought racism here at home and then went to Europe and did the same thing,” Higgenbotham said.

He estimates that about 450 Tuskegee Airmen were sent oversees for combat missions, about 150 died while in training. World War II ended before either Higgenbothams served in combat.

Nonetheless, the 70th anniversary celebration will highlight the airmen’s accomplishments.

The event is made possible through grants provided by Highmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield and FedEx. Supporters are Corporate Air, Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics-PIA and Mt. Ararat Baptist Church.

Chris Moore served as the master of ceremonies the first night and Sean Jones played

In addition, the historical society is also raising money to build a Tuskegee Airmen memorial.

“It costs between $250,000-$300,000 to build the memorial we have more than half the money and we will be starting work on it in July,” Bradford said. She said builders of the memorial hope to put in an audio component that will tell the story of each individual Sewickley Tuskegee Airmen.

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