At 2 a.m., a dilapidated car drove into an Alabama airport and came to a stop in front of 17-year-old Alma Bailey. Well schooled in self-preservation, Bailey was understandably nervous. It was 1941, and segregated Alabama wasn’t a safe place for any black person.
Bailey was there to join the nursing staff that cared for the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African-American and Caribbean-born fighter pilots whose success in World War II led to the desegregation of the U.S. military. Bailey knew about the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college with an airfield being used as a training ground for these black pilots. Women were relegated to support roles far away from cockpits, but there were a lot of jobs to be had.
Now 95 and living in Yeadon, Bailey recently told her story to a standing-room-only crowd at the American Helicopter Museum & Education Center in West Chester. The event celebrated the release of Tuskegee In Philadelphia: Rising to the Challenge (The History Press, 144 pages), a new book written by Robert Kodosky, a West Chester University professor of military history.
By the end of the war, more than 14,000 black men and women trained at the institute. Whether they flew or not, they earned the honorific “Tuskegee Airmen”—Bailey included. “My mother told me to volunteer, so I did,” Bailey says. “Mama is usually right.”
When it comes to the common hometowns of Tuskegee pilots, Philadelphia is second only to Chicago. Thirty-six pilots were from the city; six were from Ardmore, Bryn Mawr, Norristown and Yeadon. Many of the ground crew, medical personnel and support staff came from the Delaware Valley. “They came to this area as part of the great migration after World War I,” says Kodosky. “Here, African Americans were able to get better educations, jobs and housing opportunities. Discrimination was still widespread, but it was generally better than in the Jim Crow South.”
Bailey puts it more simply: “The South was a terrible place for blacks, so you got out if you could.”
Starting in 1941, Baily and others willingly headed to Alabama to participate in the pilot program. “It was an opportunity to prove ourselves,” says 95-year-old Eugene Richardson Jr., one of the Tuskegee pilots who spoke at the museum event. “And we did just that.”
Originally from Cleveland and now living in Philadelphia, Richardson was one of the 932 men who completed flight training at Tuskegee. They flew with the 332nd Fighter and 477 Bombardment groups of the U.S. Army Air Forces, serving as escorts to the fighter planes in the European theater. Tuskegee pilots flew so well that they became known as Red Tail Angels, a designation on the red-painted tails of their planes. They lost so few planes that white pilots routinely requested Red Tail escorts when they flew into enemy territory.
But in the U.S., the pilots and Tuskegee support staff lived behind fences patrolled by armed guards, ostensibly to keep them at a safe distance from the segregated town of Tuskegee. Curfews and dress codes were heavily enforced. “If we went into town, we girls had to wear our white nursing uniforms so people wouldn’t treat us like other black girls,” Baily recalls.
Life was only marginally better after WWII. Although President Harry S. Truman did desegregate the military in 1948, the hoped-for “double victory” over the Axis powers and racial discrimination never came to fruition. “People connected with Tuskegee weren’t treated with the same respect and given the same opportunities that white soldiers were,” says Kodosky. “Many of them faced decades of struggle and discrimination.”
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A big part of that took place in our region, for better or worse. It’s a heritage celebrated by the Greater Philadelphia chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. and its longtime president, Mel Payne. Kodosky credits Payne with the idea for his book.
Bailey had trouble getting nursing positions in Philadelphia and the suburbs. She worked for decades at Lankenau Medical Center and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, but always in the least desirable wards. “They moved me around from floor to floor because a lot of white people didn’t want a black nurse,” Bailey says. “They finally put me in the psychiatry ward, where the patients didn’t complain about my color.”
Richardson used the GI Bill to enroll at Temple University, then worked in sales before shifting to education. He spent 30 years in the Philadelphia School District, serving as a vice principal and principal. “Flying is my first love, but education was a close second,” Richardson says. “It was a way to inspire people to reach their full potential.”
Richardson is doing that now through Find Your Wings, a nonprofit organization he runs with his wife, Helen. Find Your Wings provides career-building and character-development workshops to adults and students. That work—along with events like the one held at the museum—is part of the long legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. “Inspiration through education makes history come to life,” says Kodosky. “But it’s not just looking at them as heroes, because that’s too narrow of a lens. History needs context. We have to look not just at their achievements in flying, but the America they lived in before and after the war.”