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Tuskegee Airman, entrepreneur Lee Archer dies at 90

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Lee A. Archer, a Tuskegee Airman considered to be the only black ace pilot who also broke racial barriers as an executive at a major U.S. company and founder of a venture capital firm, has died in Manhattan. He was 90.

His son, Roy Archer, said his father died Wednesday at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital / Weill Cornell Medical Center. A cause was not immediately determined.

The Tuskegee Airmen were America's first black fighter pilot group in World War II.

"It is generally conceded that Lee Archer was the first and only black ace pilot," credited with shooting down five enemy planes, said Dr. Roscoe Brown Jr., a fellow Tuskegee Airman and friend, said.

Archer was acknowledged to have shot down four planes, and he and another pilot both claimed victory for shooting down a fifth plane. An investigation revealed Archer had inflicted the damage that destroyed the plane, said Brown, and the Air Force eventually proclaimed him an ace pilot.

Archer, a resident of New Rochelle, "lived a full life," said his son. Archer was among the Tuskegee Airmen invited to attend President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. The airmen, who escorted bomber planes during the war fought with distinction only to face bigotry and segregation when they returned home, were also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush.

Archer was "extremely competent, aggressive about asserting his position and sometimes stubborn," Brown said. "He had a heart of gold and treated people with respect. He demanded respect by the way he carried himself." Brown estimated that 50 or 60 of the 994 Tuskegee Airmen pilots are still alive.

Born on Sept. 6, 1919, in Yonkers and raised in Harlem, Archer left New York University to enlist in the Army Air Corps in 1941 but was rejected for pilot training because the military didn't allow blacks to serve as pilots. Archer instead joined a segregated Army Air Corps unit at the Tuskegee, Ala., air base, graduating from pilot training in July 1943.

After he retired from the military in 1970, Archer joined General Foods Corp., becoming one of the era's few black corporate vice presidents of a major U.S. company.

He ran one of the company's small-business investment arms, North Street Capital Corp., which funded companies that included Essence Communications and Black Enterprise Magazine, his son and Brown said. Archer was an adviser to the late Reginald Lewis in the deal that created conglomerate TLC Beatrice in 1987, then the largest black-owned U.S. business. After retiring from General Foods in 1987, Archer founded the venture capital firm Archer Asset Management.

Archer is survived by three sons and a daughter. His wife, Ina Archer, died in 1996. Services have yet to be announced.

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