Tuesday, July 7, 2015

3,000th mural honors Tuskegee Airmen of WWII

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Roscoe Draper, 90, gives a thumbs-up following the dedication of the city´s 3,000th mural, titled "The Tuskegee Airmen, Great American Heroes: They Met the Challenge."
Roscoe Draper, 90, gives a thumbs-up following the dedication of the city's 3,000th mural, titled "The Tuskegee Airmen, Great American Heroes: They Met the Challenge." ALYSSA CWANGER / Staff photographer
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When Marcus Akinlana began working on the Mural Arts Program's latest project - dedicated yesterday at 39th Street near Chestnut - he ran into some local resistance.

"I thought the entire city was going to pick me up and throw me out of town," he said of painting the "Whites Only" part of the mural, which depicts the struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

Akinlana was the mural's main artist, but also worked with Mural Arts students and several other local residents.

Akinlana and his assistants, Diana Gonzalez and Gabe Tiberino, spent about eight months on the mural.

"People didn't understand where we were going," he said, "but they changed when they saw everything," in the mural, which recalls the dual struggle of the all-black bomber-and-fighter squadron, and which faced down segregation here in the United States while fighting the Luftwaffe in the skies over Europe.

The mural is the 3,000th commissioned and executed by the Mural Arts Program, said program director Jane Golden.

Melonie Johnson, 16, of East Mount Airy, worked on one of the bas-relief sculptures in the piece.

"When I first saw it, I didn't expect it to look so great," she said. "Eveything they fought for and worked through - it's all there. It's my new favorite mural."

Henry L. Moore, 88, of West Mount Airy, was one of about 10 of the airmen who originally served in Europe and attended the unveling yesterday. Watching yesterday's mural dedication, he reflected on what happened 65 years ago.

Escaping segregation in Ocilla, Ga., he got as far as New Jersey before he was drafted into the Army.

"I had applied in Georgia [for the Army Air Corps]," he said. They told him, "We have no place for negroes."

Ruth Scarborough, the wife of Pierce Ramsey, another Tuskegee Airman at the event yesterday, said: "It's a real tribute."

Recounting her husband's struggles as a black officer, unable to mingle with enlisted men or white soldiers, she said: "[The mural] went far beyond what I thought it would."

Linda Carroll-Pitts is a past president of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. - a group that celebrates the achievements of the original airmen and encourages young people to pursue careers in aviation. She said the mural "was the ultimate compliment for our city to recognize the airmen," particularly given the recent honors they had received at the national level. *

sbarned-smith@phillynews.com 215-854-5926
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