Tuskegee Airman comes to Washington to witness historical presidential inauguration
Wednesday, January 21, 2009 3:41 AM
Among the millions who braved the cold to watch as President Barack Obama made history by becoming this nation's first African-American president, was a Catholic deacon who made history himself some 60 years ago.
Deacon Walt Richardson, who will turn 80 in February, was a special guest at the new president's inauguration, because he was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
"I think of the awesome responsibility he is accepting," Deacon Richardson said of the new president. "I fee a sense of pride for our country and for him. What brings joy to me is the opportunity to live this moment, to see the inauguration of this president."
Deacon Richardson - a friend of Washington Auxiliary Bishop Martin Holley who knew the prelate when he was a priest at St. Mary's Parish in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. - traveled to Washington for the inauguration along with his wife of 56 years, Helen.
The Tuskegee Airmen were African-American men who joined the service during World War II, at a time of racial segregation in society and the military. The men had to fight discrimination in order to fight for their country.
The aviation cadets were trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama in a variety of disciplines, including single- and twin-engine aviation, navigation, meteorology, operational intelligence, medicine, aircraft mechanics, radio repair, parachute rigging, and other jobs required by the squadron.
Members of the group fought with distinction during the war, but faced discrimination when they returned home.
Deacon Richardson served with the Tuskegee Airmen not as an aviator or mechanic, but as an entertainer.
"I was part of 'Operation Happiness,'" Deacon Richardson said. "I was a singer, and we were the first all-military troupe to entertain at Air Force bases."
After a year with the Tuskegee Airmen, Deacon Richardson was transferred to an all-white unit. There, he said, he faced racism and had to "re-adjust in order to fit in." He said that with the Tuskegee Airmen, he did not have to worry about such matters as from which water fountain he was allowed to drink.
Deacon Richardson, who converted to Catholicism in 1957, recalled encountering racism during a 1958 trip he made cross-country when he was transferred from Eglin Air Base in Florida to Okinawa, Japan. As he was driving to the West Coast for deployment, he had trouble finding motels and hotels that would accept black customers.
"My first reaction was to turn to my faith. Whenever I came to a town (to spend the night), I stopped at a Catholic church to ask the priest to recommend a place to stay that would accept my family and me," he said. "The priests would always find me a place."
He said he also had trouble finding places to eat.
"If I noticed there was no back door, I would go in through the front door by myself," he recalled. "If I was not challenged, then I knew I could bring my family in. This is what I went through even though I was a technical sergeant in the Air Force."
Despite the hardships the squadron faced, the history it made and the victories it won, Deacon Richardson said the members were first and foremost dedicated to serving their country.
"We took care of business and did the job we had to do," he said.
During his 40 years with the Air Force, Deacon Richardson served for a time in Vietnam. While stationed at the Dover (Del.) Air Force Base, he became the first African-American to be promoted to master sergeant in the field maintenance squadron.
He has served as a permanent deacon for 29 years. He and his wife have eight children and nine grandchildren.
Attending the inauguration of President Obama, he said, "is another door that has been opened, and I am ready for it."
"I never thought I would see this day. I never ever dreamed I would live to see this day, even though I had hopes," Deacon Richardson said. "We were being told as kids by our teachers that if we study hard, work hard, be good and serve the Lord , we could grow up to be president of the United States. That is what we heard, but we let it roll off our shoulders, because we really didn't believe it."
Seeing the first African-American president, Deacon Richardson said, has deepened "my commitment to God and to others."
"God is great enough, and if we trust in Him, He will take care of the rest," he said. "We're still struggling to prove our identity, and in due time God will prove the opportunities. I don't know how long God is going to leave me here, but I intend to make a difference."