Retired Navy Capt. Weyman Watson, who followed his Tuskegee Airman father into a career of military flight and later worked to preserve the legacy of that pioneering group of aviators, died of smoke inhalation in a March 18 fire at his home in South Orange, New Jersey.
Watson, a 1974 graduate of Westbury High School who maintained ties to the community, was 61.
His father’s front-line participation in the desegregation of the military placed Watson, a tall, lanky, soft-spoken former intelligence officer, among the children of America’s civil rights icons.
Word of his death drew reactions from a childhood chum who once lived next door, members of a national Tuskegee Airmen organization co-founded by his father Spann Watson in 1972, and a heartbroken former Navy subordinate who credited Weyman Watson with persuading him to obtain a college degree.
“He was a great division officer and just an awesome cat,” said Stanford Lee, of Arlington, Virginia, who served in the Navy under Watson during the 1980s. “He stayed on me to go to college. I got my degree because of Weyman.”
Watson’s father helped push forward one of the most significant movements in civil rights history.
After the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to lift a ban on black pilots in the U.S. military in 1941, Spann Watson was one of the first black pilots in U.S. history to fly in combat. He later risked his career to help lead the peaceful “Freeman Field Mutiny” demonstration in 1945, which set in motion the end of racial segregation in the military three years later.
Weyman Watson said although America had not yet appreciated their accomplishments, the former Tuskegee pilots who socialized at his family’s Westbury home impressed him with their dignity and competence.
But it was not until a documentary of the Tuskegee Airmen aired while he serving in the Navy during the 1980s that he developed an appreciation for their place in history, and a determination to tell their stories.
“I was walking around the hangar the next day and people started coming up to me, saying, “Hey, I saw that thing about the Tuskegee Airmen. Wasn’t your old man one of those guys?” Watson told Newsday in 2016. “That’s when it started to click that what my dad had been part of was a big deal.”
“The first black mayor of Detroit [Coleman Young] was a Tuskegee Airman. Percy Sutton, the first [New York City] black borough president, was a Tuskegee Airman. He and my old man were training partners in the war,” Watson said.
Born March 27, 1956, at Mitchel Air Force Base in Garden City, where his father was stationed then, Weyman Watson grew up in Westbury. He joined the Navy in 1980, after graduating from Arizona State University, his family said.
He spent 30 years on active duty and in the reserve, serving as a Navy intelligence officer aboard reconnaissance planes based in Bermuda. He flew missions from Italy during the Iraq War.
He retired from the Navy in 2010, and was employed by defense contractor Eltron Technologies when he died.
He maintained a website for the tristate Claude B. Govan chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., an organization that honors the airmen, said former president Patt Terrelongue. “All of us are devastated over the loss of this gentle man,” she said.
Watson loved jazz and fast cars. In 2005, he co-founded Top Cover Racing, whose Formula D cars are painted the silver and red of Tuskegee fighter planes.
Former Long Island radio anchor Douglas McQuillan, a childhood friend and himself the son of a Tuskegee Airmen, said Watson shared the Tuskegee legacy during talks at schools, libraries and conventions.
“He did a lot to keep their history alive,” McQuillan said. “Because they are, for lack of a better phrase, a dying breed of men.”
Survivors include his mother Edna Watson and sister Cynthia Hopson, both of Cleveland; sister Dianne Capers, of Kew Gardens, Queens; and brother Spann Marlowe Watson, of Silver Spring, Maryland. Another brother, Air Force Capt. Orrin Watson, died in 1981.
Visitation will be Monday from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. at Donohue Cecere Funeral Directors in Westbury. A Mass of Christian burial will be said at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church in Westbury.
Burial will be at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.