Tuskegee Airmen flew in the face of bigotry

For most white Americans, World War II was a battle against Nazism and fascism. But for pilot Eugene J. Richardson Jr., maintenance crew chief Eddie Moore and their comrades in the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron — the Tuskegee Airmen — it was also a bitter fight against racism.

So it was perhaps no surprise that Richardson and Moore drew a racially mixed crowd — about 50 in all — of both civilians and fellow veterans when they brought their living tribute to the 99th and its legacy to campus Feb. 28.

They came at the invitation of the Office of Affirmative Action, the Veterans’ Advisory Group and the African-American Resource Center.

As the audience nibbled on light snacks, Richardson and Moore fleshed out the hostile environment in which the 99th had to operate and its achievements in the face of that hostility.

Richardson, the loyal soldier who served his country with pride, spoke extemporaneously in great detail about the history of both African Americans in the military and of the 99th, reinforced by a video documenting the exploits of the 99th in the campaign to retake Italy.

But Moore’s darker view of the military and America drew laughter. He explained that before joining the 99th, he had already done a stint in uniform, and was determined to avoid that experience again. But as he was making his way north to Canada, the draft board caught up with him in New Jersey, and, he said, “I ended up right back in that segregated Army.”

After getting a taste of decent treatment in Europe, Moore said he vowed never to return to the United States. In response to a question from a fellow vet in Penn’s Veterans Upward Bound program, Moore said, “I came back, but only for that GI Bill” and the education it provided.

But Richardson noted that the men of the 99th did not fight in vain. Their performance in World War II paved the way both for the integration of the Army Air Corps — today’s Air Force — and President Truman’s subsequent order integrating the military in full. “Today, the military is the most integrated part of our society,” Richardson said.

However, he said, it’s important for later generations to remember how that came to pass. “Shakespeare said that the good that men do is oft interred with their bones,” he said. “Well, the good that black men do is interred on the spot.” And so Richardson soldiers on, doing what he can to disinter it.

Originally published on March 22, 2001