They were trailblazers and gave new meaning to "the sky's the limit." They were the first black U.S. military pilots in World War II, known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Fifty photographs of the Tuskegee Airmen, who fought America's enemies abroad while facing racial discrimination at home, opened Thursday at Philadelphia International Airport.
The exhibit, which will be on display through June in Terminal A-East, is a photo essay of seven decades of aviation history.
On hand were four original Tuskegee Airmen, named for the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where they trained, an all-black unit of World War II pilots, navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, and others.
You'll need a plane ticket to see the exhibit, which stretches along two sides of a corridor beyond security checkpoints. Philadelphia International hosts an extensive program of 23 art displays to occupy travelers.
Decked out Thursday in white shirts and blue Tuskegee caps and wearing replicas of their 2007 Congressional Gold Medal, the Tuskegee men - now in their 80s and 90s - drew a crowd, including members of the St. Joseph's University Air Force ROTC and families en route to their flights.
"Without question, we changed the nation," said Eugene J. Richardson, 85, who graduated as a fighter pilot in 1945 and later became a Philadelphia public schoolteacher and a principal. "President Truman, recognizing how skillful black soldiers were, issued an executive order which started the end of segregation of the military."
Of the 994 pilots trained at Tuskegee, 450 were sent overseas, and 66 lost their lives. From 1941 through 1946, about 15,000 black men and women trained at Tuskegee and performed air and ground-crew duties.
"They weren't all pilots. A lot were support personnel," said Richardson, who was joined by three other World War II airmen: Bertram A. Levy, 88, a navigator and bombardier who spent 26 years in the military and retired a major; Pierce "Ted" Ramsey, 85, a pilot who flew the B-25 bomber; and Henry L. Moore, 90, a crew chief with the 302d Fighter Squadron.
"These men were flying airplanes, dangerous missions, trying to secure freedom for Americans, and yet not enjoying it themselves," Mayor Nutter told the crowd. "We all owe them a debt of gratitude."
The idea for the exhibit, part of the city's Wawa Welcome America festival, was hatched last summer when Philadelphia-area airmen came to the airport for National Aviation Day on Aug. 19.
"They set up a few tables with information and pictures. They were like rock stars," airport exhibitions director Leah Douglas recalled. "People loved them. I was just, 'Wow.' I ran back to my office. I found out that in 1941 - 70 years ago - on July 19 was the first day that the aviation cadets started their official military training."
The photographs, taken between 1939 and 2007, include first lady Eleanor Roosevelt's publicity boost to the Tuskegee program when she flew with an African American flight instructor and, after landing, cheerfully announced, "Well, you can fly all right."
The 50 photos, which are separate from a Tuskegee Airmen collection at Temple University, were culled by Douglas as curator from eight sources, including the National Archives, the Air Force, the Chanute Air Museum in Illinois, Howard University, and Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
Images include the 1939 flight by black pilots Dale White and Chauncey Spencer from Chicago to Washington to garner support for including black Americans in the Army Air Corps. When they landed, Sen. Harry Truman met them and, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, created a civilian flight training program at six black colleges. Tuskegee became the best known.
In 1940, Roosevelt directed the Army to train black pilots and qualified black officers. The first class of 13 cadets began military flight training on July 19, 1941. Seven years later, Truman, by then president, issued an executive order ending segregation in the armed forces.
Go to www.philly.com/tuskegee for more coverage, including photos, video, and links to museums with exhibits on the Tuskegee Airmen.