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FROM HERALD ARCHIVES | Tuskegee Airman Yenwith Whitney soared above barriers

Editor's note: This story first appeared in the Bradenton Herald on July 27, 2000.

Sit a spell and listen to Sarasota resident Yenwith Whitney spin a tale about a skinny 10-year-old kid who would zoom around his neighborhood in the Bronx with a model airplane propelled by his fingertips.

"When my mother gave me that airplane, I knew then that I wanted to become a pilot," recalled Whitney, reflecting back to 1935.

It was a time when segregation restricted Whitney's ability to fly a real plane but not his imagination.

"I only dreamed of being a pilot," he said. "I never imagined it would come true."

Flash forward to 1943. As World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific, another battle was being fought on America's home front. A number of black civil rights groups were trying to get the U.S. military to add black pilots to its ranks.

The then 18-year-old Whitney had received a draft letter from the Army and felt it was his patriotic duty to fight for his country. But he was rejected for service.

"They told me I was too small to be a foot soldier. I was terribly disappointed," he said.

After being turned down for the draft, the 112-pound lad volunteered for the Army Air Corps, which was looking for a few good black men. The New York native was transferred to the 66th Air Force Flying School, housed at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college now known as Tuskegee University.

The flying school was opened as an experimental training ground to test the potential of black pilots.

"It was programmed to fail," said Whitney, noting that the school was set up as a tool to back up the findings of a 1920s War Department report stating that blacks weren't smart enough or disciplined enough to fly a plane.

Under the direction of Charles Alfred "Chief" Anderson, the pioneering airmen practiced at Moton Field, a tiny airstrip surrounded by marshes and stands of pine near the institute founded by Booker T. Washington, the son of a slave who was a strong advocate for black rights.

During their flight training, the airmen were denied rifles because the airstrip was in Alabama, a deeply segregated state where some folks didn't like the idea of blacks shooting at whites --- even if they were the enemy.

The drills became bittersweet to the airmen, whose hopes of flying dimmed as they waited and waited for a call-up from the government. After months of waiting, their spirits were restored by a visitor to the airstrip. FINALLY, A CHANCE TO SERVE

"I've always heard colored people can't fly, but I see them flying around here," Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly said during her visit. Against the objections of her security men, the open-minded, free-spirited first lady asked to fly with Anderson.

Using her political connections, Roosevelt convinced her husband to use his influence to give the airmen a chance to fight --- especially since the military was facing a critical shortage of pilots.

The Tuskegee Airmen not only broke the color line, they shattered stereotypes about black pilots. Under Col. Benjamin Davis Jr., the first of 450 airmen known as the 99th Pursuit Squadron were sent to North Africa, Italy and Europe.

Davis was among the first blacks to graduate from West Point. "No one talked to him during the entire four years" he was at West Point, said Whitney, who described Davis, who reached the rank of four-star general, as both confident and courageous. Davis acted as a buffer for the black cadets in his charge, oftentimes bearing the brunt of the bigotry aimed at the airmen.

"If it hadn't been for him, we would have had a much more difficult time," Whitney said.

After taking the 99th Pursuit Squadron overseas, Davis returned to Tuskegee to organize the 332nd Fighter Group. That group, a combination of the 99th, the 101st, 301st and 302nd squadrons, was known by their comrades as the "Red Tail Angels" because of the red paint on the back of their P-51 Mustang fighters.

The 332nd quickly garnered the respect of white pilots, who specifically requested them as escorts. As their reputation grew, the airmen also garnered the admiration of German pilots, who referred to them as Schwarze Vogelmenschen, or "Black Birdmen."

"I fought during the tail end of the war," said Whitney, who flew 34 combat missions escorting bombers over Austria and Germany before the war ended in May 1945. "It was frightening. In training if anything happened to me, it was my fault. (In battle) I knew somebody else was trying to kill me. It's a worrisome time when you see friends dying around you and not coming back."

The institute graduated 926 aviators who went on to fly 1,578 missions and 15,553 sorties and earn nearly 900 awards, including 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts, two Soldier Medals, one Silver Star, one Legion of Merit and 744 Air Medals and Clusters. Whitney earned one Air Medal and three Clusters.

Based on the success of the Tuskegee Airmen, former President Harry Truman desegregated the military three years after WWII.

Unfortunately, the feats of the airmen have not yet been included in history textbooks. They are, however, starting to gain recognition. Their legacy was captured in a 1995 HBO movie, immortalized in a 1997 GI Joe action figure and is displayed in a permanent exhibit of photographs, uniforms and equipment at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

A traveling exhibit was featured at St. Petersburg's Museum of History in 1997, and some of the airmen recently talked about their experiences with members of the Bradenton Rotary Club.

Those war stories also include the private discrimination battles they fought in their homeland, after fighting for democracy for others.

"I was angry," said Whitney, who like the other airmen tried to get a job with a major commercial airline. "I was just as qualified as anyone else."

He used his brains to strike back against the blows the airline dealt him.

"I enrolled in the best school I could think of," said Whitney, who earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT.

After graduating from MIT, Whitney accepted a job as an engineer at Republic Aircraft doing stress analysis on the F-85 Thunderjet and was involved in the structural design of aircraft floats for the EDO Corp. on Long Island, N.Y. SHIFTING GEARS TO EDUCATION

Then he switched from engineering to education, becoming a teacher at a mission in Cameroon, West Africa.

"There was a need in Africa for physics and math teachers," said Whitney, who holds a master's in math education and a doctorate in international education from Columbia University.

So, he, his first wife, Muriel, and their two daughters moved to Cameroon, West Africa. Before arriving in Africa, the family made an 18-month stop in France to learn French, the language spoken in Cameroon.

(Both of their daughters live in New York City --- Saundra is a physician, and Karen is a fund-raising consultant.)

Cameroon was not yet liberated from France when the family entered the country.

"The guerillas were fighting against the French government," he said. "We had to go through a lot of checkpoints and carry identification cards. I felt more safe in the Army, where I had a 45 automatic on my hip and an airplane" for cover, he jokingly recalled.

Whitney spent nearly a decade teaching mathematics and the physical sciences to some of the brightest young minds in Africa. (He later became an assistant principal.)

"The young boys and girls were really talented and formed the nucleus of the new government," Whitney said.

While in Africa, Whitney was still fighting for the rights of others. He helped southern African leaders develop strategies for overturning the apartheid system, said John Chapman, who replaced Whitney as the area coordinator for Southern and East Africa for the United Presbyterian Church.

"His name is golden among those who struggled for liberation" in Africa, Chapman said. "People like (Bishop) Desmond Tutu were on a first-name basis with Yenwith. They relied on him to keep the message of the struggle alive in the states and elsewhere. He was very instrumental in keeping the (Presbyterian) church financially, spiritually and morally on the right track" with regard to apartheid.

A true military man, if you don't ask, Whitney won't tell you the details of his remarkable life, 35 years of which he gave in service to the Presbyterian Church.

"He is quiet," Chapman said. "He's very unassuming and has a very infectious laugh and smile. He does his homework and has the commitment of his convictions."

Whitney's accomplishments with the Presbyterian church include coordinating and implementing minority education programs, working closely with college presidents and board presidents; serving nearly three years as the president of Boggs Academy, a Presbyterian secondary school in Georgia; and an appointment in 1980 as liaison with Africa, the first black person to hold that position.

After retiring in 1992, he served 14 months as interim associate director of the Church World Service of the National Council of Churches in New York. He also was interim associate director of the Worldwide Ministries Divisions at the National Headquarters of the PCUSA in Louisville. He has led study tours in Malawi, Madagascar and South Africa and has traveled in 23 African countries south of the Sahara.

Whitney and his second wife, to whom he's been married for 20 years, came to Sarasota after attending a Tuskegee Airmen convention in Atlanta in 1995. While there, they hooked up with a number of old buddies who now made Sarasota their home. They checked it out and decided to stay.

"I was sold on the cultural life of Sarasota," said his wife, Lorenza (who also goes by the nickname Lori), a former principal of an elementary school in New York City who loves the opera, ballet and theater. "We also discovered we had a lot of mutual friends here" from childhood and college. Retirement hasn't slowed Whitney. He serves on the World Wide Ministries Committee of the Peace River Presbytery, writes and researches quarterly articles on Africa for World Update, a Presbyterian-United Nations publication, and has co-led a six-week series on racism and white privilege at First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota.

TURNING BACK THE CLOCK

Whitney is troubled by initiatives such as One Florida that aim to turn back the clock on the civil rights gains that minorities have made since the '60s.

"It's disheartening," he said. "We think everything is OK, but there is still a lot of discrimination in America."

He also serves as the educational counselor for MIT for the Sarasota-Fort Myers area, is a member of the board of the MIT Club of Southwest Florida, is an eastern region vice president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. and the president of the Black Alumni Association of MIT.

And in his spare time, Whitney assists his fraternity, Boule, in their mission to build the self-esteem of young black males who are searching for heroes.

In Whitney, they have found a role model.

"He is a warm, caring, compassionate, analytical and brilliant man," concluded his wife, who has a son that Whitney also calls his own.

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