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January 18, 2009

History maker witnesses history being made

METHUEN — The past three years have been exceptional for Luther McIlwain, one of the country's few remaining black World War II pilots.

He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006 for serving as a lieutenant with the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black aviators unit.

Then, in October, the military base in Alabama, where his squad trained, was named an American historical site.

Tomorrow, McIlwain, 87, of Methuen, will witness history again when Barrack Obama is inaugurated as America's first African-American president in Washington, D.C.

"This is the frosting on the cake," said McIlwain. "I feel fortunate because I've lived to see a black president.

"I got the cupcake two years ago when we got the congressional medal and the cake when the base became a historical site," he said.

McIlwain was invited to the swearing-in of the 44th president, but he will not attend because he has difficulty walking and standing for long periods of time, he said.

So, like many Americans, he will watch the ceremony on TV from the comfort of his home, where he sat when Obama was elected.

"All I did that night was cry and it will probably happen again," he said.

McIlwain said he was not surprised Americans elected a black man to be head of state.

"What we (the Tuskegee Airmen) went through was the foundation that in its own way triggered what is happening today," he said. "What I did in my teens and 20s is bearing fruit."

When President Harry Truman signed the executive order desegregating the military in February 1948, McIlwain said, other changes began to take place.

McIlwain has lived long enough to see the selection of black mayors, a secretary of state and Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas. He has also seen the Rev. Jesse Jackson win several presidential primaries.

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