This past Saturday, during a “Special Remembrance” ceremony at the Pershing Field Veterans Community Center, Jersey City unveiled a mural dedicated to city residents who served with the Tuskegee Airmen, a unit of Black military pilots and crew members who served primarily in World War II.
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-33rd district), a Marine Corps veteran, told the crowd of about 50 attendees that, “We are in debt to those Black Americans who served in uniform for us.”
According to Wikipedia, the Tuskegee Airmen “were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated …. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside of the army.”
The unit distinguished itself in combat while protecting American bombers from enemy fighters and while flying bomber missions and received three Distinguished Unit Citations.
Images of six Jersey City unit members, based on news accounts and on photos submitted by family members and traced by the city’s Veterans Affairs staff, were featured in the mural. The project was led by VA director Juliet Foster with assistance from city New Jersey Room librarian Yolanda Keahey.The painting itself was designed and executed by the local artist known as “Distort.”
“Today is the culmination of many months of hard work,” Foster said.
Foster credited resident Tony DeLuco, who runs a local real estate office, with inseminating the idea when he mentioned to her how, as a young man he made a connection with then-Superior Court Judge Samuel Scott, one of the local Tuskegee Airmen and how much he’d enjoyed their conversations.
The idea of celebrating that part of the city’s legacy “just snowballed from there,” Foster said.
Aside from Samuel Scott, those former Jersey City airmen shown in the mural are the judge’s brother Henry B. Scott, and Ulious Fluellen, John J. Bell, James Smith and Raymond Williams.
Wikipedia puts the total number of Tuskegee-trained aviators at 922.
Research from various sources indicates that Samuel Scott served as an intelligence officer assigned to the 32nd Fighter Group who, as a civilian, was an assistant city corporation counsel, assistant county prosecutor and a municipal judge before ascending to Superior Court judge assigned to Hudson.
Henry B. Scott served as a 2nd Lt. with the Tuskegee Airmen.
Ulious Fluellen was a Tuskegee trainee who applied his flying skills as an Air Force pilot during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. In civilian life, Fluellen became the first Black fire chief at the U.S. Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne where he demonstrated the use of air-based firefighting techniques to visiting firefighters from around the country. He was also a member of the national Weight Lifters Hall of Fame.
John J. Bell was a Dickinson High School graduate who became a Tuskegee flight officer. As a civilian, he became a Jersey City police officer, retiring after 36 years at the rank of sergeant. Bell’s daughter, Kathleen Lee, a niece of the late former Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham, said her dad enlisted at age 18 and was sent to the Tuskegee Institute where he met botany and agriculture teacher George Washington Carver.
On his first training flight, Lee said, Bell had a rough landing in a cornfield prompting the owners to verbally assault him for wrecking the plantings.
Attached to a Tuskegee unit, Bell flew “eight or nine” missions and “between 40 and 50” sorties, his daughter said, displaying a copy of her dad’s flight training book.
James Smith, another Dickinson alum, went to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and served in the Philippines although he never became a pilot. Returning to Jersey City, Smith set up shop as a local entrepreneur and created a food and liquor franchise known as Zimps with 20 locations around the city. He also sponsored Little League and bowling teams. A street marker bearing the name “James ‘Zimp’ Smith Way” at Ocean Avenue and Dwight Street was dedicated to him.
Raymond Williams became a flight officer after completing training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss. After returning to Jersey City, Williams also became a city police officer.
Another Tuskegee member with a Jersey City connection was the Rev. Dr. William G. Wilkerson, who served as a fighter pilot, was wounded in action in 1944, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Wilkerson later graduated from medical school at the University of Geneva and practiced as an obstetrician in Jersey City for 20-plus years. He was also a minister at the Messiah Baptist Church in East Orange and a New Jersey state assemblyman in the 1970s.
And there was Lt. Col. Robert Ashby, a Ferris High School graduate who was a pilot with the 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen and flew during the Korean War. As a civilian, Ashby “became one of the first few African Americans to work as a commercial airline pilot for a major airline” when he was hired by Frontier Airlines in 1973, according to Wikipedia.
A Lincoln High School alum, Maj. Oliver Ellington flew several hundred missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars. He later moved to Massachusetts where he became an Air Force pilot stationed at Westover Air Force base. Stateside, he was a champion Gold Glove middleweight boxer, credited with going undefeated from 1947 to 1951.
Among those attending Saturday’s event were representatives of the local posts of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, community volunteers, and a representative of the Jefferies Group financial services firm, which donated to the refurbishing of the Pershing Veterans Community Center in preparation for the ceremony and upcoming Memorial Day weekend.
Jefferies managing director Michael Aiello, a veteran and West Point graduate, said the Pershing spruce-up was the first initiative sponsored by “The Mission Continues,” a local veterans advocacy task force that is collaborating with neighborhood citizen groups to “showcase the power of partnerships of veterans and the community.”
Photos courtesy of City of Jersey City and Jennifer Brown