BRIGHTWATERS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Schoolchildren in Suffolk County came face to face Thursday with men right out of their history books.
Gardiner Manor Elementary School in Brightwaters honored Tuskegee Airmen — survivors of World War II, survivors of harsh racial segregation — CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan reported.
“Knowing that you can see them in real life, right in front of you, is a cool thing, and it’s a cool experience,” said 11-year-old Makahi Cumberbatch.
The ceremony was scheduled to last an hour, but took all day instead because the children were so caught up in the history.
The Tuskegee Airmen, now well into their 90s and their numbers dwindling, were the first African-American military aviators in U.S. armed forces history.
Until first lady Eleanor Roosevelt became involved in the cause, blacks had been banned from piloting wartime planes.
Tuskegee Airman Dabney Montgomery held up a 1918 document Thursday that said the black brain was “not capable of being taught how to fly a plane.”
Montgomery helped change history in Italy, bombing the Nazis with his all-black squadron.
“We defied this,” he said.
Trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, the fighter pilot military units remained seperate from whites, both home and abroad.
“Our commanders were white,” noted Tuskegee Airman Wilfred DeFour.
Said Audley Coulthurst, another of the airmen: “I was a flight crew member, and I was flying four hours every single day.”
But he said he was not allowed to associate with white officers.
“White enlisted personnel didn’t necessarily salute the officers, our black officers,” Coulthurst said.
The salute finally came from the White House 62 years later.
In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. The medal is currently on display at the Smithsonian.
Each airmen was awarded a bronze replica.
“It’s very nice meeting a real hero,” one young girl said.