Mel Payne is not a Tuskegee Airman.
He doesn’t have any family members who were in the Tuskegee Airmen, nor any real ties to the groundbreaking group of primarily African American military pilots and personnel who fought in World War II.
He is just a man who became fascinated with the group’s history and is working to preserve that legacy and continue their contributions.
Since 2017, he has been president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. He, along with 96-year-old Dr. Eugene Richardson Jr., an original Tuskegee Airman; and Dr. Robert Kodosky, dean of the History Department at West Chester (Pennsylvania) University and author of “Tuskegee in Philadelphia: Rising to the Challenge,” will give a lecture, via Zoom, on the importance of the Tuskegee Airmen on Tuesday at 6 p.m.
The talk will be in connection with the Biggs Museum of American Art’s newest exhibit, “Toni Frissell: In Italy with the Tuskegee Airmen.”
An imminent fashion and society photographer, Ms. Frissell (1907-88) held several official positions with the American Red Cross, the Women’s Army Corps and the U.S. Air Force to document World War II.
This exhibition highlights her images of the Tuskegee Airmen’s 332nd Fighter Group, the first Black flying group in U.S. military history, direct from the collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.
The Biggs reopened to the public this week, but the exhibit can also be viewed virtually at biggsmuseum.org/virtual-biggs.
The Biggs’ tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen is part of Dover’s fifth annual Citywide Black History Celebration, a monthlong series of events highlighting local African American history, culture, art, music and theater.
This year’s events are a combination of virtual and in-person activities.
Having previously read about the Tuskegee Airmen in history books, Mr. Payne said he really became aware of them about 15 years ago, during a business trip to Dayton, Ohio, when he visited Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
“They have a big display of all of the airplanes and equipment and people who served in the different wars throughout the United States. So it’s about five different huge hangars,” he said.
“They have original airplanes and things, and they had a whole section on the Tuskegee Airmen when I was there.
“So I said (that) when I get home to Philadelphia, I want to see if they have any chapters or representatives, and that’s when I first met Tuskegee Airmen in New Jersey. I participated in the Tuskegee Airmen for a number of years, and in 2017, they asked me if I would consider being the president (of the Philadelphia chapter),” he added.
He said he was immediately struck after meeting a few members.
“They are a unique set of people, who were just doing their jobs, who became Congressional Gold Medal-winning heroes. But they did it with dignity, and, through all that they had to deal with, they still moved forward. And many people don’t know about things that a lot of them did afterwards,” Mr. Payne said.
“Although the pilots were refused the opportunity to become pilots back in the ‘40s, and people were refused to be mechanics in companies, they still persisted and went on to do other jobs.”
He points to Dr. Richardson, who came back from the war, returned to school, became a science teacher and retired as a school principal. He also talks about Nathan Thomas, a native of Bridgeville, who worked with logistics during the war and went on to graduate from then-Delaware State College with a degree in sociology, worked as a data technician with the Department of Finance and retired after 31 years with the U.S. Postal Service.
And then there is 101-year-old Roscoe Draper, who trained the Tuskegee pilots when he was 23 years old. At age 60, he decided to learn to fly helicopters and went on to train helicopter pilots.
“So there are people from the Philadelphia area, as well as many other Tuskegee Airmen and women throughout the country, who went on to contribute mightily to the economy and the success of the United States, even after dealing with all the racism and segregation,” Mr. Payne said.
Before really learning the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, Mr. Payne said he associated the group with just pilots. But they were so much more, he added.
“People don’t associate the Tuskegee Airmen with the 15,000 people that served. In 1941, Tuskegee, Alabama, which is outside of Birmingham quite a distance, you had such high segregation that they had to have all of the (Black) people to do all of the functions of keeping the base working,” he said.
“So they had people in all disciplines, which is why we promote those different disciplines for the people that we still have in our chapter, so that the folks know that it wasn’t just pilots. Because for pilots to be successful, you need 12 to 14 people to support each pilot. Mechanics, navigators, nurses, doctors, administrators — you need everyone, especially when it’s so self-contained.”
Mr. Payne said there weren’t just African American men in the Tuskegee Airmen. Of the 992 pilots, five were Haitians, one pilot was from Trinidad, and another was born in the Dominican Republic.
“There were also Whites because, at that time in the military, no Black man could be an officer over soldiers, so you had to have White commanders. It wasn’t until Benjamin O. Davis was elevated to be over the 332nd Air Command, would you have that,” Mr. Payne said.
Gen. Davis was the first African American brigadier general of what later became the U.S. Air Force. He was commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group, which escorted bombers on air combat missions over Europe.
Mr. Payne notes there were also women who flew during the war as part of the mission.
“Because the men were off fighting in the war, the women had to fly the airplanes from the manufacturing places to the bases and things. People don’t think about that,” he said.
It’s those stories and the sacrifices the Tuskegee Airmen made to fight for their country that Mr. Payne and his group try to keep alive. But while the past is important, the chapter also believes the future is just as key.
After a flight that then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt took with African American chief civilian instructor C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson in March 1941, she pushed for more training for Black men to learn how to fly. Mr. Payne said that’s when flight schools for African Americans began to spring up.
One of those original training places was at now-Delaware State University, which still has an Aviation Program.
The Philadelphia chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen awards a $3,500 scholarship annually to a student going through that program at DSU.
“We have a partnership with the school that we set the criteria, and they designate a student to receive it. Because they know best. We’re working to help grow that scholarship right now. Two years ago, we named that scholarship after Roscoe Draper, who was a flight instructor who taught pilots and was a student of Alfred Anderson. They used to call him ‘Coach,’ so we changed that scholarship for Delaware State to the Roscoe ‘Coach’ Draper Leadership Scholarship, given to a student studying aviation at Delaware State.”
Mr. Payne said the overall mission of the chapter is threefold.
“We work to maintain and sustain the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, so that’s why we do the presentations. The funding that we receive from doing those things goes back into supporting other initiatives, such as scholarships. And we provide STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs,” he said.
Mr. Payne cites a initiative where pilots volunteer their airplanes to take youths up in the air to give them flight experience.
“We have had students participate in that program, go on to Delaware State and become pilots,” he said.
They also provide drone and mechanics programs, along with giving four other scholarships in different fields, one of which is named after Mr. Thomas, who now lives in Philadelphia.
Mr. Payne said Tuesday’s talk will cover the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, along with giving folks a chance to hear from Dr. Richardson about his real-life experiences.
Admission to the Zoom talk will be $5 for Biggs members and $10 for the general public. Call 674-2111 to register.
The Biggs Museum of American Art is at 406 Federal St. in Dover. Register at biggsmuseum.org for tickets to the photo exhibit or call 674-2111.
In the end, Mr. Payne said these trailblazing men and women were just looking to do their part for their country.
“They just wanted to contribute to the war. People wouldn’t even let them go to the same bathroom or the same water fountain. But they had the strong will to want to contribute to the war, and when you ask them about it, they say, ‘Well, this is my country, also.’ So they were serving their country even though their country wasn’t serving them,” he said.
Lopez in Milton
Eric Anthony Lopez, currently with the world tour of “The Phantom Of The Opera,” will bring back his solo show “Broadway & Beyond” to Milton Theatre Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
His concert comes after his sold out run in 2019 and during a short “Phantom” hiatus as the world tour changes countries.
Charles Santoro (of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s “School Of Rock” on Broadway, will return as musical director.
Tickets are available at MiltonTheatre.com. For individuals or groups larger than four, call the box office at 302-684-3038 for assistance.
The Milton Theatre is at 110 Union St.
New in theaters this weekend is the historical crime thriller, “Judah and the Black Messiah,” and Robin Wright in the drama, “Land.”