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Honoring the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen

January 16, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we remember a group of African-American warriors from World War II: Brave men who broke barriers, created a timeless legacy, and to this day continue to serve as role models. They are the Tuskegee Airmen.

Dozens of these airmen have roots in Los Angeles and have left an indelible mark in our community.

Imaging living life 70 years ago as an African-American, enduring hate and prejudice. It was part of everyday life. Yet despite that constant disrespect, you still love your country so much you are willing to fight and die for it.

That is a Tuskegee Airman, who not only served this country but did so above and beyond the call of duty.

The Tuskegee Airmen were a segregated unit of African-American pilots, the first ever to fly for the United States military.

But to get there, they had to wade through hateful opinions. The military brass felt African-Americans were not capable of being good pilots.

"The head man of the Air Force, he didn't think Negroes could fly. He said, 'As long as there's a [epithet] in the world, he'll never fly an airplane as long as I'm around,'" recalled Roger Terry, one of the Tuskegee Airmen. "There were a lot of Negroes that had more sense than they thought."

They ignored the ill treatment and went on to forever prove that they were not only worthy of being fighter pilots, they were among the very best.

Southern California's Lowell Steward Sr. was one of them. Through his son, Lowell Steward Jr., he said they did it for one simple reason.

"He's told me as to why they were so competent in what they did. ... [He] said, 'Because we love our country,'" said Lowell Steward Jr.

It was their motivation to prove their doubters wrong.

"That's why they fought, harder, stronger, faster, just for that right," said Lowell Steward Jr.

Their record was so stellar that they earned a Congressional Gold Medal, finally presented to them in 2007. It was decades late, but an honor to finally receive it.

"Very, very satisfying. It really is," said Tuskegee Airman Ted Lumpkin, a Los Angeles resident.

Lumpkin described receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, and how the president of the United States saluted him.

"He was saluting us because of the many salutes that we did not receive and should have during our time in the service," said Lumpkin.

After the war, many of the airmen continued on with their unstoppable attitude. Some broke new ground in the military, others in civilian life.

Lowell Steward Sr. came back to L.A. and tried to buy a home, but couldn't because he was black. So he set out to change that, becoming one of the first African-American real estate brokers in the city and the first to help other African-Americans buy homes.

"I hadn't learned anything about the Tuskegee Airmen in school. It wasn't until I came to Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum that I learned anything at all about the Tuskegee Airmen," said Kelly Anyadike.

Sisters Kimberly and Kelly Anyadike are the next generation of pilots influenced by the Tuskegee Airmen, even though their own history classes have taught them little to nothing about the pilots. It was in Compton that they not only learned about the airmen, they met them. And now these teenagers each own aeronautical records.

Kelly is the first African-American female to pilot a plane coast to coast, and she did it with a Tuskegee Airman by her side. Kimberly is the first to solo four different airships in one day.

The Tuskegee Airmen inspired them. Their wish now is for more people to know the airmen's story, citing their own accomplishments as their tribute to these World War II heroes.

"Instead of living life on the sidelines, the Tuskegee Airmen were able to step out and do something and be something different than what was expected of them," said Kimberly.

"That's the reason they're my heroes," said Kelly. "They proved that when everybody said they couldn't do something, they did it, and they did it the best."

Watch David Ono's special report on the Nisei soldiers from World War II.