William Johnson spent most of his youth in Glen Cove watching planes fly over his head.
Those planes inspired him to study aeronautics at Glen Cove High School and go on to become part of the Tuskegee Airman project, which produced the first group of black pilots in the nation’s armed forces.
Johnson was one of three Tuskegee Airmen -- along with Audley Coulthurst, 88, of Jamaica, Queens, and Julius Freeman, 86, of Queens -- who attended a parade and dedication ceremony Saturday morning to rename a portion of Oak Street in Uniondale as “Tuskegee Airmen Way.”
“I encourage you all to study the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, what existed before and what existed after,” Johnson said during his speech. “We truly proved all men are created equal.”
The idea to honor their contributions was spearheaded by Nassau Deputy County Executive for Minority Affairs Phillip Elliott and Melvin Harris, president of the NAACP Hempstead branch. In April 2012, the Nassau County Legislature unanimously approved the honor.
“They were the Jackie Robinson of the aviation industry,” Elliott said. “It’s an emblem of hope and a significant piece of the puzzle of American history.”
The official dedication was conducted by Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano.
“They fought overseas for this country and they came back to battle racism and segregation,” Mangano said. “This is a long overdue recognition of the Tuskegee Airmen’s service to America.”
The portion of Oak Street between Hempstead Turnpike and Commercial Avenue was chosen because it is a major strip that connects the municipalities of Uniondale, Garden City and Hempstead and runs right along Hofstra University, Elliott said.
Before the ceremony, a parade of historic vehicles transported the honorees, politicians and organizers down the newly named road, followed by marching bands and dance teams from local schools. The cars, coordinated by Ellyn Okvist of the Model A Ford Club of Long Island, were from the years 1924-1936.
Parade grand marshal Freeman, who recently celebrated his 86th birthday, happily remembers his first day as an airman in the 1940s.
“My fondest day has to be walking out on Tuskegee Army Air Field . . .,” Freeman said.
The ceremony concluded with the unveiling of the new street signs, with each member receiving a “Tuskegee Airmen Way” sign to take home.
“If you’re looking for true American heroes,” Mangano said, “look no further than these men here and all the Airmen.”