A New York Minute In History
A New York Minute In History
Ithaca's Tuskegee Airman | A New York Minute in History

On this episode, Devin and Lauren tell the story of Verdelle Louis Payne from Ithaca in Tompkins County, who joined the Army Air Forces during WWII and became a pilot. During the war, Payne served in the 99th Fighter Squadron, which became part of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, an all-Black group of pilots serving in the then still-segregated U.S. Army. Our hosts also share the stories of some of New York’s other notable Tuskegee Airmen, including Lt. Col. Clarence Dart and Lt. Col. Harry Stewart, Jr.

Marker of Focus: Tuskegee Airman, Ithaca, Tompkins County

Guests: Dr. Lisa Bratton, assistant professor of history at Tuskegee University; Dr. Thomas Campanella, historian of city planning and professor at Cornell University, author of Brooklyn: The Once and Future City

A New York Minute In History is a production of the New York State Museum, WAMC, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse King. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.

Further Reading:

Charles E. Francis, Tuskegee Airmen, The Men Who Changed a Nation (2008)

J. Todd Moye, Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (2010)

J. Todd Moye, The Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project and Oral History in the National Park Service, The Journal of American History (2002)

Daniel Haulman, The Tuskegee Airmen Chronology: A Detailed Timeline of the Red Tails and Other Black Pilots of World War II (2018)

Teaching Resources:

FDR National Library and Museum, Red Tailed Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen

National Parks Service, Tuskegee Airmen virtual exhibit

Sherri L Smith, Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen?

Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE) Credit: The New York State Museum is an approved provider of Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE). Educators can earn CTLE credit (.5 hours) by listening to this episode and completing this survey. Please allow up to two weeks to receive confirmation of completion.

Follow Along

Saratoga County recognized Lt. Col. Clarence Dart (center), one of New York’s Tuskegee Airmen, with a ceremony in 2011. (Credit: Lauren Roberts)

Devin: Welcome to A New York Minute In History. I’m Devin Lander, the New York state historian.

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Roberts, the historian for Saratoga County. This month, we celebrate Veterans Day and pause to express our gratitude to all those, past and present, who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States. And on behalf of A New York Minute In History, we want to thank all the veterans who have served our country.

On this episode, we are honored to focus on a marker commemorating a veteran of World War II. Located at 212 Cascadilla Street in the city of Ithaca, Tompkins County, it is titled “Tuskegee Airmen.” And the text reads: “Verdelle Louis Payne, born here October 1, 1919, pilot and flight officer with the Tuskegee Airmen, U.S. Army Air Forces, World War II. William G. Pomeroy Foundation, 2021.”

So we’re going to talk a little bit about who Verdelle Payne was, and this important accomplishment in his life. As the marker says, Verdelle was born October 1, 1919 in Ithaca. And actually, another famous person was also born at this address: best-selling author Alex Haley, who wrote the book Roots was born in the same house as Payne only two years after. Verdelle received his student pilot license at the Ithaca airport around the age of 18, which would have been uncommon for a young Black man in the late 1930s. I spoke with Dr. Thomas Campanella, a professor at Cornell University, and the applicant for Verdelle Payne’s William G. Pomeroy marker.

Thomas: I’ve always been very interested in aviation, and I am actually a licensed pilot myself. And when I was writing my most recent book about Brooklyn — it’s titled Brooklyn: The Once and Future City — I have a whole chapter about Floyd Bennett Field in southern Brooklyn, which was the first municipal airport in New York City. I was looking at African American pilots in New York state, and I came across this name, Verdelle Louis Payne in Ithaca, New York. And that, of course, led me down another rabbit hole where I started researching Payne. And that’s how, basically, I came to discover that he was really one of the first African Americans to get a pilot’s license in New York state. I don’t know if he was the first, but he was among the first group.

I will say, it’s not an enormously rich background that we have about him. Exactly how Payne became interested in aviation, really, is not something I was able to determine.

Lauren: According to a newspaper article, while Verdelle was young, he met his future wife, Theodora Mitchell, of Mamaroneck, New York, while she was in Ithaca going to school at Cornell, and he followed her back to her hometown. And then shortly after, in 1942, he enlisted in the United States Army. He left for training at the end of July, and by the end of the year, Verdelle was stationed in Bangor, Maine with an aviation squadron, which is where he and Theodora got married. Sometime between 1943 and 1945, Verdelle was transferred from the airfield in Maine, and took part in the Tuskegee Experience at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In April of 1945, Verdelle graduated at the rank of flight officer, and he served as part of the 99th Fighter Squadron.

So let’s talk a little bit about what the Tuskegee program was, how it got started, and maybe how someone like Verdelle would have ended up as a Tuskegee Airman.

Devin: I think these are great questions, Lauren. I think the first thing we have to realize is that the United States military, during this era, was completely segregated. Black soldiers and white soldiers were not thought of as having the same amount of ability. And that goes back to a report that was commissioned by the Defense Department in 1925, called “The Use of Negroes in War.” And among many other racist things that this report projected, was that Black soldiers could not fly airplanes or be pilots in the military because they lacked, essentially, the mental acumen. Now Verdelle Payne himself was a civilian pilot. There were other Black civilian pilots during the 1930s. But the military was still segregated.

I spoke with Dr. Lisa Bratton, assistant professor of history at the Tuskegee University.

Lisa: From 2000 to 2005, I was a historian for the U.S. National Park Service Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project, where I traveled around the country for five years, interviewing the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Army War College, which we kind of liken to the Pentagon — they basically stated that the Negro was a subspecies of the human family, does well following orders, but doesn’t do well as leaders. [They were] cowardly in battle, etc. And so this is the environment that the Tuskegee Airmen came to be.

Devin: But this was World War II, there was a need for pilots. And I think the Army Air Force realized that they needed to recruit Black pilots. Why is it called the Tuskegee Experience? Well, that’s because the Tuskegee Institute, which is now called Tuskegee University, which is a historically Black college in Alabama, was the first to be awarded the contract by the Defense Department to train Black pilots for this initiative.

Lisa: One reason was the weather. And the other reason was they felt that they could keep the pilots in check, because Tuskegee being in Alabama, had a strong environment of segregation.

The men came from everywhere — even Iowa, California, places in the 1940s where you might not think that African Americans lived. But the airmen who came from the north were dealing with a different type of racism. They talked a lot about traveling on the train, from north to south, because for many of them it’s their first time [going south]. Before they get to Washington, D.C., they can sit anywhere in the train they want. When they get to Washington, D.C., they had to move to a segregated car. And when they pulled up into a town to let people on and off the train, they had to close the curtains. And that was a painful, stressful time for them. Because we have to remember, too, that these were 19, 20, 21-year-olds. Very young. In the beginning of the airmen project, they all had to be college graduates. And after a while, when the war heated up a little bit more, the requirement was changed to two years of college for pilots.

It is said that to keep one pilot in the air, it really took 10 support personnel. So the Tuskegee Airmen, it wasn’t just the pilots — there were ground support personnel, nurses, parachute packers, civilians, cooks. There were women as well. The women I interviewed primarily were the nurses, but there were also some wives who were there — not overseas, but on the various military bases with their husbands, providing support.

Devin: This began in 1941. They were in existence between 1941 and 1946. And during that time, they graduated 996 pilots. Cadets were initially trained to be combat pilots, but over time, there was also training for navigators and bomber pilots.

Lisa: The group that went overseas, their job was primarily to protect the bomber. A bomber has 10 men inside. They’re big, they don’t move very well. They’re kind of gangly and slow. And so the fighter pilots surround that bomber, and try to fend off enemy warfare. And so the job of the Tuskegee Airmen was to protect the bombers.

Devin: The Tuskegee Airmen were required to undergo specific testing and training. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Lisa: In general, they took the same test because the tests were military tests. But there were several occasions where men told me that when they took the test, if they scored well — particularly if they scored higher than whites who were taking the test — they were forced to take the test again, because it was just assumed that they must have been cheating. So what happened? They took the test again, they got the same score. But the other part that made the Tuskegee Airmen stand out differently was that they had to stay overseas longer. Generally a military person was overseas for about six or seven months, maybe, and then they’d go home. That’s what whites were able to do. But the Tuskegee Airmen, since they were dealing with a smaller population of African Americans, they had to wait much longer for their replacement. So they might have to stay overseas two or three years.

Lauren: After Verdelle’s graduation from Tuskegee, he was stationed at Walterboro, South Carolina. And although he served throughout the majority of World War II, he never saw overseas combat. As he related later in life, he got very, very lucky. He was sent orders to ship out, and though he wasn’t told where he was going, he was guessing by the clothing list that they gave him that it was most likely that he was to be headed to the South Pacific. However, the night that his flight was supposed to leave, the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Forces, and the flight was canceled.

Devin: Despite the fact that Verdelle Payne himself did not serve overseas, the Tuskegee Airmen, who were at the time known as the Red Tails because they had distinguished red painted tails on their fighter aircraft, did serve in a very large capacity during the war. Estimates suggest that they flew 1,267 missions and 6,381 combat sorties with the 12th Air Force in Europe between 1943 and 1944, and also flew 311 missions and 9,152 combat sorties with the 15th Air Force between June 1944 and May 1945. The Tuskegee Airmen were known as one of the most successful escort units. Throughout the war, they had a very low percentage of their bombers actually lost, and as a result, they received a variety of citations and awards, including: three Presidential Unit Citations, the Legion of Merit for their Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. — he also received the Silver Star. Members of the Tuskegee Airmen received 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses as a unit, eight Purple Hearts, 25 Bronze Stars and 1,031 Air Medals, which is amazing.

Lauren: I was lucky enough — early on in my role as Saratoga County Historian — I was lucky enough to be a part of honoring a Tuskegee Airman from Saratoga Springs, whose name was Clarence Dart. He was actually born in Elmira, but after the war, he moved and remained the rest of his life in Saratoga Springs. He was actually drafted in ‘42, and he became part of the 99th Fighter Squadron, which is part of the 332nd Fighter Group, the same group that Verdelle Payne would have been a part of. Clarence flew 95 missions as a Tuskegee Airman. He was actually shot down twice and survived. He was the recipient of two Purple Hearts, for injuries that he had sustained. He earned numerous other commendations and metals as well, including five Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross and the New York State Service Star. He remained active in the Saratoga Springs community. There are people who remember that he used to give neighborhood children rides in airplanes. He was on the Salvation Army board, he was part of the New York State Air Museum Aim High program. In 2011, Saratoga County honored him just before he passed away in 2012. And I was happy to be a part of that ceremony. He was an amazing man. And I’m glad that we get a chance to talk about yet another amazing story from the Tuskegee Experience.

Devin: Yes, New York had a variety of Tuskegee Airmen, including Lieutenant Colonel Harry T. Stewart, Jr. He’s still alive, he’s 98-years-old. He was originally born in Virginia, but moved to Queens when he was two-years-old. WAMC’s Jim Levulis spoke with him in 2020.

Harry: I was living near LaGuardia Airport, in New York at the time. These aircrafts, fighter aircrafts are taking off. They were P-39 Airacobras, taking off from the LaGuardia Airport. There were 3 of them. They got into formation and they were flying very, very low over the city of New York there. And I was curious as to what was going on. But when I did get from Sunday school, I went upstairs, and of course, the news was on at the time that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I immediately felt that it wouldn’t be long before I would be called into the service, because the draft had started. Even though I was only 16 or 17 at the time, it wouldn’t be long before the draft would call me up.

Jim: And you were eventually drafted. Is that correct?

Harry: That’s correct. 

Jim: As a fighter pilot, you flew 43 combat missions over Europe, and you were awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. What went through your mind when you were in the air in those moments?

Harry: Well, it was a sort of a love of flying there. When I first went overseas, I was flying formation, and the first couple of missions that I had, I had no idea of what was going on except that I was keeping close to my leader at the time, there. But soon after I started getting acclimated to being up in the combat zone, flying in large formations with the other aircrafts, I got to really enjoy the idea of the panorama — of the scene I would see before me, with the hundreds of bombers and the hundreds of fighter planes up there, and all of them pulling their condensation trails. It was just a ballet in the sky, and a feeling of belonging to something that was really big. I must say that even though it was war time, I found it exciting and enjoyable.

Jim: During one of those missions, you’ve said that you were in the crosshairs of a German fighter. Do you recall having time to think in that moment, or did you just act?

Harry: I just acted. All my previous training came to fore, and my whole effort at the time was to get out of his crosshairs, because he had me dead to right. I went into a very, very steep dive, I guess what they call a split S, and was fairly close to the ground at the time, and I was making some very, very tight turns, trying to shake them off of my tail while I was down near the ground. And evidently, whether he was an inexperienced pilot or what, but he went into a high speed stall. In other words, he lost control, he crashed, and I did get credit for destroying his aircraft, even though he was on my tail there.

Jim: One of your fellow fighters, Walter Manning, was shot down over Austria. Can you share with us what happened to him?

Harry: Yes, Walter was shot down. And there were seven of us at the time, we were over in Austria. And we were on what was known as a fighter sweep, looking for targets of opportunity, and we ran into a horde of FW-190s. They were German fighter planes, and a big fight ensued, and three of us (of the five) were shot down. One made it back to Yugoslavia and was able to get back to friendly territory the same day. Another was killed instantly. He was shot down. And Walter Manning, I didn’t know what happened to him at first. I know that he, he did bail out, but we didn’t hear anything from him or about him until years later. And an investigation had taken place many, many years after he had gone down, and they found out that he landed safely in his parachute — but he was picked up by a mob that delivered him to the local jailhouse, waiting for the military to pick him up and take him to the prisoner of war camp. While he was waiting there, two nights later, another mob came and broke into the jail. [They] took Walter out and lynched him. They hung him from a lamppost.

He was not the only American, or I should say Allied airman, that was lynched in Austria. There were a number of them. But to get the crowd worked up, [according to] eyewitnesses that were there, they testified that the Nazi soldiers were working up the emotions of the Austrian people and telling them stories about racial epithets, about Walter Manning. And that he should be lynched. That’s what they would do in his country. And that’s exactly what the mob did.

Jim: World War II ends in 1945. You continued to serve in the Army Air Forces until 1950. Can you describe what you did after your service?

Harry: Well, yes. I got out of the service because of the large reduction in force. But when I got out of the service, I decided, let me see — even though I know there was prejudice and discrimination as far as employment in the airlines at the time, I had accumulated a large number of flying hours. [So] I applied for two airlines as a pilot and was rejected, summarily rejected. I decided that it didn’t look like I would be able to get a job as a pilot in airlines, so I went and took a fallback position and decided to go to school and get my degree. I got a degree in mechanical engineering from New York University and stayed in the civilian field as an engineer.

I’m so happy to say that even though I was not able to realize my ambition as far as flying for the airlines was concerned, not many years after, I guess it was around 1970 (about 20 years after I had initially applied there), African Americans were being accepted as pilots in the airlines. And today, every major airline that we have in the country, we have airmen and airladies who are flying the aircraft.

Devin: When we think about the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Tuskegee Experience, and all of those who served as part of this program, I think one of the most direct results can be the actual desegregation of the United States Armed Forces, which happened in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II. President Harry Truman enacted Executive Order 9981, which directed the equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the United States Armed Forces.

Lauren: While the order did end segregation in the military, many of the Black Americans who fought during World War II still had to fight for equality back at home. The major benefit to veterans after the war, known as the G.I. Bill, did not apply to the majority of Black Americans that fought in the Armed Forces. They were not eligible for many of the housing benefits due to redlining and racial covenants. Many of the universities were not open to Blacks, so they were blocked from using the education benefits as well. And it was still quite a struggle for them on a daily basis as far as earning equality and civil rights in their own country.

Devin: Now, despite the fact that the Tuskegee Airmen today are famous, and there have been films made about them, and many books written about them, it took several decades for them to receive the recognition that they currently have. In 1998, the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site was created at today’s Tuskegee University. And in 2000, the National Park Service established an oral history program. This was something that Dr. Lisa Bratton worked on between 2002 and 2005, and the project was successful in interviewing over 800 Tuskegee program staff and pilots. In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively, not individually, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress.

Lauren: And of course, we’re still trying to bring to light these many incredible stories, especially of New Yorkers who were part of the Tuskegee Experience. One way to do that is to erect these historic markers like the one for Verdelle Payne in Ithaca. After being discharged in 1946, Verdelle and his wife settled in Mamaroneck and raised four children. Verdelle had a number of different occupations, including an electrical inspector for a company that built fighter planes on Long Island, a television antenna installer, a mill hand for a window and door factory — and the one he liked the best, a custodian at Mamaroneck Avenue School. He worked there for 14 years until his death in 1985. Verdelle was buried at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island.

Lisa: I still [think] back to the Army War College report that says that we couldn’t do this, that we weren’t smart enough to be successful — and the Tuskegee Airmen proved them wrong, in an environment where all of the cards were stacked against them. What will bring a Tuskegee Airman to tears is when they talk about how white German prisoners were able to use the officers’ clubs and all the amenities, and walk around the base with no restrictions — but African American officers were not able to use those facilities. And when they got off of the ship, coming back home after maybe losing a limb, maybe they missed a child being born, or you know, they’ve been away from their families for years. And they come off the ship, and the same sign “Negros this way. Whites this way.” I mean, I can imagine it must have been one of the most hurtful experiences of life. But even in the midst of all of that, they persevered. And they went on to show the nation and really to show young people what is possible.

I traveled a lot with the Tuskegee Airmen, to different speaking engagements all over the country. And almost without fail, a white gentleman usually will come up to us and say, “Thank you. My father was a bomber, worked on a bomber plane during World War II, and if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.” I’ve heard that so many times. And they tell their children, you know, “Shake this man’s hand. Thank this man. Take a picture with this man. Because if it wasn’t for him, you might not be here.” Descendants of bomber pilots really understand and get the Tuskegee Airmen legacy, and the relevance.

A New York Minute In History is a production of the New York State Museum, WAMC, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse King. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.