One of the First African-American Air Force Members Dies at Age 95, Receives Full Honors

Flight Chief Leslie Edwards Jr., one of the first African-American military airmen known collectively as the Tuskegee Airmen, has passed away at the age of 95.

Edwards was a humble military history enthusiast who endured years of racial discrimination in order to serve his country. However, he also participated in a historic movement that heralded the end of segregation in the ranks.

Edwards passed away at Cincinnati’s Veterans Hospital on Sept. 23, 2019. His daughter Imogene Bowers, speaking to WCPO, described her father as “one of the greatest historians you’ll ever know.”

The legendary airman was born on Aug. 9, 1924, in Memphis, Tennessee. His father was a bellhop, and his mother looked after the home and children; Edwards was the youngest of three siblings.

According to his obituary, as a young man, he married his sweetheart Anne Mae Green in 1943 but was drafted into the Army Air Corp the very same year. He trained as an aircraft engine mechanic at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Macon County, Alabama, and joined the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Force.

Edwards was later reassigned to Louisville, Kentucky, and promoted to flight chief. Being a Tuskegee Airman was a moniker that Edwards would wear as a badge of pride throughout his military career, but it wasn’t an easy role.

War bonds poster featuring a Tuskegee Airman (©Wikimedia Commons | Darwinek)

“It was called the ‘Tuskegee Experiment’ because it wasn’t supposed to work,” Arthur Leahr, whose father was a Tuskegee Airman, explained to WLWT. “It was ‘known’ that black people didn’t have the courage, didn’t have the intelligence, didn’t have the wherewithal to be able to fly.”

It was at Freeman Army Airfield in Indiana where the faction’s frustration with racial segregation hit a fever pitch. Edwards was working as an aircraft mechanic supervisor at the time; it was possible for African-American servicemen to be promoted to officers, but they were denied the luxury of spending time in the officers’ club.

“It was a beautiful officers’ club,” Edwards regaled, speaking to WCPO, “but they made clear that our pilots, and our officers, could not go into that officers’ club.”

A signed Tuskegee Airman flight certificate (©Wikimedia Commons)

In 1945, they made a stand. “Our officers, black officers, started going in and [they] started arresting them. They arrested maybe 19 at one time. And then another group of officers went in, like 25, and they arrested them.”

The Freeman Field Mutiny, as it was later known, ended in 162 arrests. It was the act of civil disobedience that finally ignited an official desegregation; President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in July of 1948, which eventually led to the end of racial segregation in the United States military services.

Edwards’s daughter spoke about her father’s humility and instrumental role in military history. Bowers didn’t learn that her father had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen until she was 50 years old.

Tuskegee Airman Major Anderson shows off the Congressional Gold Medal given to all Tuskegee Airmen at a Veterans Day ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 11, 2013. (©Getty Images | Win McNamee)

“He did not allow any of the focus to be on him,” she told WCPO. “Even when you talked about the Tuskegee Airmen, he never necessarily talked about his experience. He talked about what the Tuskegee Airmen did for the world.

“He was very adamant about details,” Bowers continued. “The most important thing he told was how important it was for desegregation in the military.”

This is Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen Leslie Edwards. What a blessing to hear him share of our precious history and legacy.

اس پر ‏‎Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. National Office‎‏ نے شائع کیا ہفتہ، 11 اگست، 2018

Later in his life, Edwards dedicated much of his time to advocacy and public speaking. The Tuskegee Airmen even received a Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush in 2007.

“Leslie Edwards was a very articulate, very knowledgeable man,” said Edwards’s nephew, retired U.S. Air Force reserve member Lloyd Shackelford, as per WLWT.

“He was animated,” Leahr recalled, having met Edwards as part of the Tuskegee Airmen’s Cincinnati chapter. “He smiled a lot.”

Edwards remained married to Anna Mae for 72 years until her death in 2016. They had four children together and 19 grandchildren. The trailblazing World War II airman was buried on Oct. 4, 2019, with full military honors.

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Author: Louise Bevan