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Tuskegee Airman: We've come a long way

Humphrey Patton of Hempstead harbors childhood memories from the 1920s of his grandfather's white next-door neighbor in Kentucky gathering with others on a nearby hilltop and burning a cross.

The family of Spann Watson, of Westbury, left their prosperous farm in rural South Carolina in the 1920s when he was 10, after a mob dragged members of a successful black family into the nearby woods and shot them down in a hail of bullets.

Roscoe Brown, of Sag Harbor and the Bronx, recalls the racial climate in the Mississippi town near where he trained for the military in the 1940s as being so poisonous that he preferred remaining on base, even though racial insult was common there, too.

"The base was rigidly segregated, and we had no interaction with the white soldiers at all," said Brown, 86. "But we didn't even think of going into Biloxi."

The life experiences of these men, black World War II veterans who plan to attend Tuesday's presidential inauguration of Barack Obama at the invitation of Congress, each describe an arc linking one of the nation's most historic milestones with some of its ugliest moments.

The men all flew with the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African-Americans to serve in air combat units for the U.S. military. Their excellence as fighter escort pilots helped persuade President Harry S. Truman to end segregation in the military, on July 26, 1948.

Each one expressed surprise that he would ever see the day when an African-American was elected as president. Now, they will have the honor of watching the oath of office being administered to Obama.

Patton, 89, who was born in Detroit, spent part of his childhood living with relatives in Kentucky after his mother died.

"They [the Ku Klux Klan] would have meetings across the road and up the hill," said Patton. "I remember seeing the blaze."

Patton said he didn't grasp the significance of what was happening until relatives told him when he was much older. "I didn't know what it was all about then. I was about 5 or 6," he said.

Patton also lived for a while with an aunt in Louisville, where two brothers were seized by a mob in 1927, paraded through the streets, saturated with gasoline and burned to death.

Watson, 92, was 9 years old when a rider approached his family home in rural South Carolina on horseback to tell Watson's father that three members of the Lowman family, nearby black farmers who had made a name for themselves as successful cotton growers, had been lynched.

Elizabeth Robeson, a Columbia University doctoral student who is writing her thesis on the lynching, said the Lowman family was targeted because of jealousy over their economic success in a region of extreme white poverty.

The Lowmans were dragged from a jail after it became apparent they would be found innocent of murdering a local sheriff.

"[The Lowmans] and Spann Watson's family were pretty typical of the black families who would leave," said Robeson, who lives in New Orleans. "They were very much under a spotlight because of their prosperousness amid great poverty. They stuck out like a sore thumb."

Watson said his father moved the family to New Jersey, and eventually sent Watson to Howard University in Washington, D.C. After a stint in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Watson worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, where he successfully pressured commercial airlines to stop discriminating against black pilots and crew members.

Watson said the inauguration will be a triumphant moment in his life.

"We've come a terribly long way," Watson said.


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