Earlier this school year, students at Harrington Middle School participated in a student assignment challenge where they researched and read about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of African-American pilots who fought during World War II.
On Thursday, those students actually got to meet a former Tuskegee pilot.
Eugene Richardson, a member of the Greater Philadelphia chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, gave a presentation to about 70 students at Harrington Middle School. Richardson detailed the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and described the trials and tribulations they faced in becoming the first group of black pilots to fly in the U.S. military.
Richardson became interested in flying as a kid in the 1930s. Living in Ohio, he went to see the Colored Air Circus, an airshow performed by black pilots. From that point on, Richardson knew he wanted to fly.
“I wanted to fly like the birds did,” Richardson said.
Richardson signed up to take the pilot qualification test at the age of 17 in Philadelphia. When he turned 18 in 1944, he was finally able to go for pilot training at the Tuskegee Arm Air Field. He completed flight training as a pilot as World War II was ending in March 1945 and was discharged in July 1946.
Richardson is a regular visitor to schools around the area. He feels it’s very important for kids to understand how difficult it was for pilots like him during a time when black people were discriminated against.
“This is really a great story for the kids to hear,” Richardson said.
Harrington guidance counselor Sharon Sheehan and social studies teacher Matt Mortimer were the advisors who created the assignment challenge for students and helped arrange Richardson’s visit, which was also made possible through a donation from the Mt. Laurel Public Education Fund.
Mortimer described the presentation as a great opportunity for students to interact with someone who lived through history, especially with February being Black History Month.
“This gives a chance for the kids to see history alive,” Mortimer said. “Instead of just reading about it in a textbook, they can interact with it.”
Richardson’s presentation included stories about many of the first pilots who helped pave the way for black pilots like him. One story was about a man named Benjamin Davis, commander of the Original 99th Fighter Squadron and a member of the first class of Tuskegee Airmen. Davis would perservere as a pilot even though he faced many struggles while enrolled at West Point. Davis went to West Point before beginning pilot training.
“No one would befriend him,” Richardson said. “They wouldn’t even let him have a roommate.”
Stories of discrimination struck home with the students as they did research for their assignment. Seventh-grade student Joe Caudill created a slideshow video about the Tuskegee Airmen. He said the story of the airmen inspired him as he did his research.
“They weren’t able to do what they wanted to for so long,” he said. “That’s why they stood up for what they believed in.”
Another pair of seventh-grade students, Owen Hartman and Jake Mohnacs, wrote a poem depicting the many positive traits of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“We read about how they kind of overcame and had to fight for what they wanted,” Owen said.
Richardson told the students they could make a difference in the world like the Tuskegee Airmen did. He told them three key words to help guide them in their future. He said with dream, desire and discipline, they would be able to achieve anything they want.