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When equality first took wing

As they mounted the stage at the Cradle of Aviation

Museum in Garden City yesterday - two active-duty generals, one retired general

and a pioneering World War II aviator - an evolution of African-American

struggle, and progress, was made plain.

Before an audience of about 200 Westbury and Uniondale high school students

at the museum's Black History Month program, William Wheeler, 85, of Hempstead

- one of the four luminaries - related his experience as a member of the famed

Tuskegee Airmen. The all-black aviator group's successful exploits during

World War II helped influence President Harry S. Truman to end segregation in

the military.

Responding to a question from moderator Lester Holt, of the "Today" show's

weekend edition, Wheeler said he wasn't thinking about making history.

"We were fighting for equality," Wheeler said.

Other panelists were Maj. Gen. Darren W. McDew, a command pilot who is now

director of public affairs for the Air Force at the Pentagon; Brig. Gen.

Allyson R. Solomon, whose duties include commanding the Maryland Air National

Guard; and Maj. Gen. Joseph McNeil of Hempstead, who is retired from the Air

Force Reserve, and during active duty in the 1960s was a master navigator.

Wheeler, in an interview, recalled Truman's executive order 9981 to

integrate the military. "1948," Solomon added, citing the year of Truman's

edict. "We all know that number," McDew said.

In interviews and in their talks, McDew and Solomon, both 48, noted the

doors that were opened by the likes of Wheeler and McNeil.

Noting he didn't have to go through the struggles the Tuskegee Airmen did,

McDew said, "I wouldn't be standing here today, having gone through pilot

training and now wearing general stars, without their work."

Solomon noted there are fewer limitations based on race and gender today.

"But we still have a ways to go. Many of us feel you can't just be average, but

better than average in order to be competitive."

McNeil, 66, of Hempstead, who is also retired from the Federal Aviation

Administration, is in the history books for being one of four college students

who staged the first sit-in of a "whites-only" lunch counter at a Woolworth's

in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960, sparking a nationwide protest that ended the

practice.

Responding to a student who asked how he was able to "maintain your cool"

in the face of such discrimination, McNeil said, "The whole effort was about

bringing about human dignity and respect. While it was tough, it was important

we stay nonviolent."

After hearing their stories, Michael Barrett, 18, a senior at Westbury High

School said, "We really don't have much to complain about, our generation.

"The doors are wide open and it's time for us to step up to the plate."

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