EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 18, 2009

History maker witnesses history being made

By Yadira Betances

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.

McIlwain was born in South Carolina, and his family moved to Lawrence when he was 2. His father worked in the Wood Mills. They later moved to a house in Methuen, where McIlwain continues to reside. He has a sister, Glendora McIlwain Putnam.

McIlwain returned to South Carolina in the early 1940s to attend college. But when he tried to join the military, recruiters ridiculed him for wanting to be a pilot.

"They told me I couldn't fly a plane because I was black and I was stupid. I had to prove to them that I could," he said, which he did by passing the entrance exam with high marks.

McIlwain served as a second lieutenant with the Tuskeegee Airmen and, as an instructor, trained many of the nearly 1,000 black aviators in the unit.

The squadron fought in North Africa and Europe escorting bombers into Europe in their preferred aircraft, the P-40 Warhawk.

McIlwain said they never lost a bomber to enemy fighter planes.

"I'm living proof that we (African-Americans) can," he said. "It had nothing to do with where you graduated from or the values my parents instilled in me."

African-Americans in history

Shirley Chisholm, launched first nationwide campaign for president

Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Baptist minister, received 18 percent of the votes in the 1984 Democratic presidential primary and 29 percent in the 1988 primary

Thurgood Marshall, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1967-1991

Carl Stokes, first senator from Massachusetts

Edward Brook, first black mayor of Cleveland, 1967-1979

Gen. Colin Powell, secretary of state under President George W. Bush, 2001-2005

Condoleezza Rice, first black woman named secretary of state under President George W. Bush, 2005-present

Deval Patrick, elected Massachusetts governor in 2007