BY SARAH LAING
Host: As of today, the 100th Street bus depot in Harlem has a new name. Sarah Laing was at ceremony dedicating the transit hub in honour of the ‘Tuskeegee Airmen’, the first African American military air division.
Laing: The Tuskeegee airmen were legendary fighter pilots. They’ve been hailed as civil rights warriors. So it’s not obvious why the New York Transit Authority re-christen a bus depot with their name. The explanation for this incongruous matching lies in the story of men like Conrad DeSandies. His son, Andre, is here for the unveiling of a plaque that bears his father’s name…almost by accident.
DeSandies: He was originally from Trinidad, and when he came to New York, he lived in Harlem, and he got drafted almost immediately.
Laing: Conrad DeSandies found himself at an air force base in Alabama, part of the Tuskeegee Airmen. In the second world war, the official line was that African Americans could not serve as pilots in a segregated army. The black flying unit was created after some pressure by civil rights group as an ‘experiment’. That experiment produced one of the most successful fighter squadrons of the war. But when members of the unit returned home, it was as if they had never served at all – no matter how skilled they were as mechanics or technicians.
De Sandies: They couldn’t get jobs in the air industry… you know, Jim Crowe was alive and well.
Laing: One of the few places that would hire them was the then-private New York Transit authority. DeSandies settled down to life as a mechanic for the MTA buses, after he spent the war fixing P-40 Mustang fighters. Andre DeSandies wasn’t even aware of his father’s distinguished service record until very recently.
De Sandies: What’s interesting is that I found out he was a Tuskeegee airman, a very famous one, and I talked to the other Tuskeegee airmen’s families, and they said we didn’t know. And I said how come you didn’t know, and they said we just didn’t talk about it, we keep a low profile. We just did our job. So they just accomplished it, did their time, walked proud, as they still do, and they didn’t talk too much about it.
Laing: At today’s dedication one of the 12 Tuskeegee airmen who worked for the MTA, one of the Tuskeegee Airmen did speak. Reginald Brewster worked as a clerk for the transit agency while going to law school.
Brewster: I am immensely proud and happy to be here today. At 94 years old, I’m the oldest guy in the room. And I am a living testimony that the colour of your skin does not determine your mental capacity or your character.
Laing: Brewster is one of only two of the Tuskeegee Airmen who worked at the MTA left alive. Over 130 buses will leave the Tuskeegee Airmen bus depot each day – each bearing a decal of a Red Tailed plane, the enduring legacy of these pioneering fliers.