In a Plant City restaurant, Ephraim Reaves had just sat down to order lunch when another diner noticed his World War II veteran's cap. • He came over and shook hands with Reaves, 91, grateful for his service — and in the process embraced a living slice of black history.
From 1942 to 1945, Reaves served as an aircraft mechanic in the Army Air Corps' 6th Squadron, keeping the planes flying while the Tuskegee cadets trained in them and flew into lore as the Tuskegee Airmen.
The program had received extra attention in April 1941 when first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Tuskegee Army Air Field to accept an offer to fly with Charles A. "Chief" Anderson, the airfield's first black pilot instructor.
At a time of segregation in the military, Reaves recalls that the black airmen worked hard to prove that they were as capable as white airmen.
"We had to do double the work and get half the pay, but God blessed us," Reaves said. "We had to work together because that's what you do in life to accomplish anything."
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In Reaves' life two things were constants: God and work. He married Naomi, a beautiful elementary school teacher that he met at church. They had three daughters, Elaine, Peggy and Efriann, and two sons, Ephraim and Isaac, who died in infancy.
After he got out of the military in 1946 he busied himself learning clothing design and tailoring at a school on Fifth Avenue in New York. Upon completing the course he decided to come back home.
"I was so cold and miserable that I decided to move back south because I liked it better," Reaves said.
Fewer people in the South needed tailoring, but he loved designing and making outfits for his wife and children.
A special memory would always remain of the beautiful golden corduroy suit he once made for his daughter Elaine when she was voted queen of what was then Marshall High School in Plant City.
His youngest daughter would inherit his talent.
"He showed me how to make suits for myself, husband and others," Efriann Gonzalez said. "I always loved going to the fabric store with him. No matter how bright or crazy the fabric, he would allow me to express myself through the clothes I would design and sew. He is the reason for my love of sewing."
To support his family he worked in nearby phosphate mines and moonlighted as a pastor, later building three churches. The churches are still standing. Like the block and foundations that he lay, his faith in God remained.
"I've seen some dangerous times," he says, "but I stood and met the challenge and the Lord brought me out."
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Two books influenced him: the Bible and an 1873 work called Good Morals and Gentle Manners. In his spare time he could always be found tinkering, building things like radios and other electronic equipment that was beginning to emerge.
Throughout the years he won the admiration of people like Cheryl Johnston, who attends church with him.
"Ephraim Reaves is a remarkable gentleman who has lived by an extraordinarily generous credo," Johnston said. "He treasures his relationship with God, honors his country, loves his close-knit family and prays for his fellow man."
Last year Sharon Moody, president and founder of the Plant City Black Heritage Celebration, recognized Reaves' achievements with a special award.
"When you overcome the obstacles that he had to overcome in the service as a black man — that's an honor unto itself," Moody said. "He was very thankful for the opportunity to defend his country.
"During that time men that were black weren't thought of as intelligent or capable, but with the help of God he put his protection around them."
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Reaves lives alone in the Plant City home he built. His beloved Naomi died years ago. His daughters frequently check on him and stay in close contact. He still makes his own meals and mows his own lawn. He even changes the blades of the riding mower when they wear out.
He knows that we all wear out.
"The Bible says we are only here for a season," Reaves says.
He reflects on his life and is most proud of his family because, he says, they serve the Lord. He is also proud that after retiring from 30 years of work in the phosphate mines he completed his education and received his high school diploma.
The former pastor continues to guide younger folks by telling them to be real in what they do and to keep a clean mind. He tells them to be patient and let God fight all their battles.
And he continues to trust in the God that sees no color.
Belinda Kramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.