When Dr. Harry Lanauze, 85, took up a shovel Thursday, Timothy McCray, who stepped forward, wasn't going to leave the Tuskegee Airman pilot flying solo.
Together, Lanauze and McCray, an 82-year-old Air Force veteran, turned the first bit of dirt at the Sewickley Cemetery.
The ceremony marked the beginnings of a memorial that celebrates the Greater Pittsburgh Tuskegee Airmen legacy and recognizes the history of Western Pennsylvania’s first black military aviators.
“It’s long overdue,” said Lanauze, of McKeesport.
trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to become fighter pilots and the first black aviators in the U.S. armed forces. Although the military was still segregated, the Airmen became heroes of World War II, and their experience became a dramatic prelude to the civil rights movement.
“Tuskegee Airmen were unknown, unfortunately unrecognized, and they never received the praise they should have gotten for being one of the best flying units in World War II,” said McCray, who served from 1950 to 1977 in Korea and Vietnam.
Lanauze said the skills Tuskegee Airmen gained as pilots did not help them later when it came to transferring their experience to the post-war business world. Many of the soldiers were undereducated people who continued their fight against segregation as civilians, he said.
“When we came back to the U.S., things had not changed," he said. "We had problems before Tuskegee Airmen and afterwards.”
Construction of the stone monument is expected to begin March 7, the 73rd anniversary of the graduation of the first five pilots in the training program in Tuskegee.
This project started with Regis Bobonis Sr., an 85-year-old retired journalist and member of the , who wanted to trace African-American roots in Sewickley. Bobonis said Thursday the memorial will be etched with the names of more than 80 Western Pennsylvania servicemen.
Among them will be the name of Angie Hicks' father, William, who will be 91 this month.
While growing up, Hicks knew her father was part of the corps and all that it meant, but his military experience wasn’t something he liked to talk about, she said.
“As he got older and other people started talking, he did,” said Hicks, of Westmoreland County. “He often said, ‘We lived it.’ What he meant was ‘We went through it.’ ”
Terry Bradshaw, president of the , said the largest contingency of Tuskegee Airmen came from Western Pennsylvania.
“There’s so much history here,” Bradford said.
Sewickley's population of African-American people was particularly sizable by the 1940s, when locals began to enlist in the military to fight in World War II. Sewickley contributed eight Tuskegee Airmen.
A burial place
Scott Wendt, president of the Sewickley Cemetery, said donated land will provide a place for the memorial. Burial plots will be reserved on the right side of the monument for the eight Sewickley pilots, he said. Behind the monument, space has been reserved for any Tuskegee Airman from Western Pennsylvania who wishes to be buried in the cemetery.
Wendt said a couple of Tuskegee pilots have expressed an interest. Space has also been reserved behind those graves for any veterans.
“When this is dedicated, it will be a big event,” Wendt said.
As part of the ceremony, artist Ray Simon unveiled his painting that he said aims to capture the spirit of the pilots and honor the men who flew the B-17 planes. Simon, of Columbiana, OH, said he wanted to depict the challenges the soldiers faced.
Bobonis said the painting will be the centerpiece of the ebony monument, converted into little porcelain pieces and reassembled like a puzzle. The campaign goal is to raise $178,000 so that the monument's costs are paid before construction begins, he said.
“That will guarantee it will be here in perpetuity,” Bobonis said.
Recognizing WWII heroes
Local, county, state and federal officials attended the groundbreaking with veterans who served in various eras. A moment of silence followed the event, recognizing all U.S. soldiers and their service.
Lt. Col. George Charlton Jr., 88, of Pittsburgh, said he was proud to be a part of the groundbreaking, but he and others believe the soldiers should have been recognized years ago.
“I think it’s great, but all these things are so late in coming,” said Charlton, who went on to build a distinguished career in the Army, U.S. Treasury Department and Pittsburgh Parking Authority. His uncle Charles Peters was generally recognized as the father of black aviation history in Pittsburgh.
Steve Price, 65, of Penn Hills, a trustee member, said, “These guys are in their 80s and 90s, and they’re leaving here fast.”
Charlton knows something about veterans dying off. He served in World War II and spent 23 years in the Army after joining the 10th Cavalry in 1942 and serving in that Buffalo Soldier unit. A lot of the men he knew have passed away, he said.
“There’s not too many of them left,” Charlton said.
Otis McAliley, president of Pittsburgh-based Afrika Yetu Inc., said a lot of people once thought the black soldiers couldn’t fly, but the soldiers proved them wrong. He also noted that Congress recently honored the first black Marines with the Congressional Gold Medal.
"The fact that it's being done here in Western Pennsylvania and is supported by the community is a testament to community and the support we're giving each other," McAliley said.