South Road in Jamaica soon could be renamed for a group of warriors who overcame bigotry and segregation to become some of the toughest and most respected fighter pilots in World War II.
Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) on Oct. 3 joined Dabney Montgomery and Wilfred DeFour of Manhattan as the Council’s Parks Committee held hearings on a measure to rename the street Tuskegee Airmen Way.
The U.S. Armed Forces still were segregated in the mid-1940s, and the War Department had decided that black men did not have the necessary skills and abilities to fly P47s and P51s in combat or maintain such sophisticated machines on the ground.
The Tuskegee Airmen — who trained in Tuskegee, Ala. — would prove them horribly wrong, garnering the respect and gratitude of the all-white bomber crews under their protection, while becoming troublesome and lethal opponents for the German Luftwaffe.
Montgomery, a member of Community Board 10 in Harlem, and DeFour served in the ground echelon.
“I told the Council that this renaming is very important, especially for young people,” Montgomery said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “They need to know their history, their background.”
Montgomery hopes some youth who do not know the Tuskegee Airmen will be moved to find out a little bit about them.
“It’s good for young people to know that hip-hop is not the only place they can find heroes, people who fought and bled and died fighting for us,” he said.
Wills is giving the renaming effort his full support.
“The Tuskegee Airmen have fought with honor and bravery, overcoming adversity in service to a country that once thought them incapable of flying,” he said in a statement issued by his office.
And while the Tuskegee training program was first intended to keep the pilots and their support units segregated, the name has become a badge of honor for the men who served under it.
“We had a convention in St. Louis earlier this year, and they were selling jackets with the name and logo,” Montgomery said. “My wife said I had to get one of those ... I wear that jacket with pride.”
“We were very proud of our accomplishments, in our skills and our contributions to the war effort at that particular time,” DeFour said.
Montgomery, an Alabama native, said he never met DeFour until he moved to Harlem after the war. They live about three blocks apart.
Montgomery in 1965 served as one of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s bodyguards during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama.
Now in his 90s, he uses his experiences to teach children of all ages. And he has much hope for the city’s youth.
“The other day I was talking with some third-grade children and one of them asked ‘How could you do that for people who discriminated against you?’” he said. “A third-grader asked that question.”
Montgomery and 17 other veterans of the Tuskegee Airmen last year attended a very special screening of “Red Tails,” the 2012 George Lucas movie that told their story starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard.
“We saw that at the White House with President Obama,” he said. “I liked it. There were a few Hollywood touches, but it was accurate. It showed the pilots as real personalities. And I liked how they showed the pilots and the ground crews working together as we did, because for every pilot in the air, you had about 10 or 15 men on the ground supporting him.”
Wills said the Council also heard from the children of deceased veterans of the unit from in and around Jamaica.
The councilman said the proposal is a deserved honor for the airmen’s service during the war, and the role they would play in ending segregation in the military between 1948 and 1954.
“Etching their name in the permanent fabric of our city through the renaming of this street is a fitting tribute to the sacrifices they made to protect our liberties and integrate the United States Armed Forces,” he said.