Eugene Richardson always wanted to fly.
As a kid growing up in Ohio, he spent hours piecing together model airplanes and reading books about aviation. Sometimes, he’d sit in a swivel chair and pretend he was high in the sky.
“Just the idea of being able to get into this machine and go up, up in the air and around the clouds,” said Richardson, 90.
It would take a war for the young Buckeye to realize his dreams.
In 1943, as World War II raged, Richardson left high school and headed to flight school. He was 18 and utterly thrilled with the opportunity, despite his father’s objections and his mother’s fears.
“At that age, you don’t figure anything is going to happen to you. You’re immortal. You’re superman,” said Richardson, who will be honored during a Sixers pregame ceremony Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
After basic training, Richardson landed at the now-historic Tuskegee University in Alabama.
“I felt like I was on cloud nine walking around the campus,” he said.
At a time when segregation was still the societal norm, Tuskegee was charged with training the country’s first African-American military pilots.
The effort was referred to as an “experiment” – the implication being that it wasn’t clear if African-Americans were good enough to become aviators.
In 1925, the Army War College issued a report called the “Use of Negro Manpower in War.” When it came to military service, the report said African Americans had an “inferior mentality” and were “inherently weak in character.”
That only energized Richardson and hundreds of others like him to be the best pilots they could.
“A lot of what we did was to prove that we were equal to everybody else and this racism stuff was just a lot of nonsense,” said Richardson, who now lives in Philadelphia.
Richardson never saw combat. The war ended a couple months after he completed his training.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order that desegregated the military forever.
It was a proud day for Richardson. Knowing that his time in Tuskegee helped pave the way for his son to follow in his footsteps may loom larger, though.
“He went to Navy flight school. He was a Navy pilot assigned to the Marine Corps, flying A-4s. After he was in the corps for five or six years, he went with American Airlines,” said Richardson.
It’s a full-circle history lesson that makes the retired educator smile, especially on Veterans Day.