Lee Hayes wanted things in life that he never got, endured racism that he decided would not define his existence and lived a quiet life in East Hampton despite being a member of the Tuskegee Airmen known the world over.
"I thought I had an advantage because I could really fly," Hayes told Newsday in a 2011 interview. "That the airlines or some outfit would give me a job because I was good at it. I was all over looking for work, but nobody would hire me."
Hayes said he never let bitterness get the better of him and instead worked to make East Hampton a better place.
On Sunday, nearly a century after Hayes was born, the Amagansett Youth Park where he and his descendants frequented countless times was renamed the Lt. Lee A. Hayes Youth Park. A larger celebration will be planned for June 19, which is Juneteenth and the day before what would have been his 100th birthday.
Hayes served as a town Democratic committeeman, was a founding member of the Calvary Baptist Church in East Hampton and advocated to hire the first Black poll watcher in town, said East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc.
"He was well-revered, and it was time for him to be recognized," Van Scoyoc said. "We think it’s important that we highlight that history because it takes everyone to contribute. And not everyone who’s contributed has been recognized."
The town board is considering adding a relief featuring Hayes’ face and a QR code to learn more about the history of Freetown, the section of East Hampton where free Black people settled in the 19th century, Van Scoyoc said.
"It’s an opportunity to retell some of that untold or under-told history," he said.
Hayes would often walk along Town Lane near the park when visiting the local American Legion Hall, so the town board thought it a fitting location for a dedication, Van Scoyoc said.
As a Tuskegee Airman during World War II, Hayes was so good at flying a plane he once said he could land a bomb in a garbage can from 1,000 feet above. Naturally he assumed his skills and experience as a member of the famed all-Black regiment would land him a job as a commercial pilot when he returned to the States after the war.
But the big airlines never called Hayes, an East Hampton resident until his death in 2013 at the age of 91. Because of segregation, no Black man served as a commercial pilot until 1964.
Hayes’ great-niece, Jolyn Hopson, who grew up in East Hampton and now lives in Arlington, Virginia, lobbied the town board earlier this year to honor the former aviator. Hopson, an Army veteran herself, said she was inspired to get Hayes the recognition he deserved after her 10-year-old grandson, Jevuan Hopson, took an interest in the family’s military history. It was also an opportunity, she said, to discuss with Jevuan how racism is manifested in society.
"I’m like, you know, my uncle really wasn’t honored," said Hopson, whose grandmother, Hester, was one of Hayes’ 12 siblings. "We all wanted to honor him and show the world what he had meant to us."
LT. LEE A. HAYES
Hayes was a native of Mannboro, Virginia, and moved to the East End with his family in 1930, when he was 8, after his father found work on a dairy farm.
He could not get a construction loan after the war and instead deeded his East Hampton land as collateral to a lumber company and built his own house.
He and his wife, Marion Jones, raised two children in the home until Hayes’ death in 2013.
SOURCE: Newsday archives