When he was a Tuskegee Airman on an Alabama air base in the 1940s, Cecil O. Byron and other members of the all-black squadron could not shop or dine in the nearby town. They were relegated to the balcony at the movies and could not leave the theater until the white patrons had gone.
"We were in uniform, getting ready to fight a war, but still not accepted," Byron, 91, said to an audience of students and teachers at Randallstown High School last week.
He has been to the movies five times in recent weeks, each time to see "Red Tails," the Hollywood version of the story of the Army Air Forces group that learned to fly, shoot and maintain aircraft at a field near the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He has even watched the film with the president and first lady.
Byron and Lemuel A. Lewie, 92, are among the last of the original Tuskegee Airmen and they are lately in great demand as lecturers. Residents of the same Baltimore County neighborhood, these veterans never thought they would be so popular at their advanced ages, but "Red Tails" has renewed interest in their story.
"Most people are not aware any longer of what we did," said Lewie. "Only recently have they become interested again in how we fought an enemy overseas and waged war on racial segregation in America."
They relish telling stories of World War II battles and struggles for equality in their own country.
"It's easy to remember," said Byron, a retired college professor. "Because we keep doing speeches."
Byron spent nearly three years of the war overseas, mostly in Italy. Italians often asked him why he was fighting in their country for freedoms he didn't have at home, he said.
One Randallstown student moved to the front row to catch every word of the discussion at the school last week.
"I want to learn about what brought them here today," said junior Mauche Smith. "I want to hear about their struggles, what they went through and what they did for this country."
In the past few months, they have several times donned their traditional red blazers with the Tuskegee Airmen insignia and pinned on their medals. They have visited the White House and the Pentagon and spoken at libraries and schools. Their memorabilia is the foundation of the Living Legends Display at the Essex library.
"These two are very busy, especially now in Black History Month," said Felecia Diggs, a county librarian who put the display together. "But they gathered up the things they loved and loaned them to us. They deserve much honor for what they did for their country."
Lewie, who grew up in South Carolina, spoke of his determination to become a pilot, and how he aced the written and physical tests but was still rejected by recruiters in his home state solely on the basis of his race. He persevered and reapplied to the program.
He spoke of the early planes, his training as a navigator and bombardier, and how he became the first in his class to fly solo. After the war, he remained in the Army Reserves and attained the rank of first lieutenant. A captaincy eluded him, but his granddaughter, Army Capt. Christel Lewie Thompson, reached that milestone and is serving in Afghanistan today
"It was tough but finally I made it," he said. "I came home as a Tuskegee Airman."
Wendy Rose, a special-education teacher at Randallstown High, said that while a Hollywood movie honors the airmen, the students learned "the real picture of what happened."
Byron, a native of the Bronx in New York City, was drafted in 1942 while a student at what is now Morgan State University. He, too, fought to be part of the 99th Fighter Squadron and ultimately trained as a mechanic.
Even when they had reached combat readiness, it took the advocacy of nation's first lady to get the squadron into battle. Eleanor Roosevelt visited the air base and took a flight with one of the pilots. Historians say that she convinced her husband of the airmen's skills. The men saw combat in North Africa and Europe. Not one bomber that they escorted was lost to the enemy.
Adam Laye, who teaches African-American studies at Randallstown, said the veterans gave a perspective students would not find in text books.
"They brought such context to the era," Laye said. "For most of these kids, segregation is a foreign term."
Byron returned to Morgan after the war and eventually earned a doctorate in chemistry from Temple University, all on the GI Bill of Rights.
"After that, I felt Uncle Sam didn't owe me anything," he said.
He urged the students to "get all you can out of school. Don't hang out on the streets. There is nothing out there."
Several students lingered after the talk to shake hands with the veterans and request autographs. Junior Sam Shellington said the they had him thinking about a career in the military.
"Because of them, I would not have as hard a time," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun