In 1941, Elmer H. Wilson was drafted into an elite all-black unit of military pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen were praised for their work flying combat aircraft against the Nazis, but they faced discrimination at home. America's first black military airmen trained in a segregated unit, and after the war, they were excluded from World War II victory parades.
Wilson's widow, 89-year-old Mildred Wilson of Tarpon Springs, said her husband never said much about the time he spent as a camera technician in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
"They got called all kinds of names," Mildred Wilson said of the Tuskegee Airmen. "But it didn't bother (Elmer). That's what I see in Obama. He's cool and calm. He reminds me of the attitudes of the Tuskegee Airmen."
Wilson, silver-haired and witty, was the keynote speaker at the African American Club of West Pasco's program Monday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While the two-hour event at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Pine Hill commemorated King's life, attendees looked ahead at what President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration today means for the nation.
The event included songs by the church's choir. Students read King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the victory speech Obama delivered in Chicago on election night.
Pews were filled with local residents, some of whom drew parallels between King's work and Obama's ascension to the presidency.
"You hear people say that King marched so Obama could run," said attendee Mark Skogman, 52, of Port Richey. "Obama is carrying out the legacy."
Alma Jones, 47, of Port Richey said when Obama takes the oath today as the 44th president of the United States, the country will be embarking on a monumental change.
"We'll be united as one," she said. "We'll be recognized by the content of our character, and not the color of our skin. The dream will be fulfilled."
It's a dream Wilson helped fulfill in her own life by emphasizing the importance of education.
Wilson is the seventh of 10 children. She took piano lessons as a child and studied hard in school. Her parents couldn't afford to put her through college, so she took night courses at her old high school and worked as a babysitter and housekeeper.
She married Elmer, a friend from her neighborhood, during the summer of 1941. Six months later, Elmer was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps.
He was assigned to the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala., a place the Philadelphia native had never even heard of.
Elmer returned home in 1945. Mildred eventually went back to school and earned a master's degree in education. She taught high school for 19 years, traveled around the world and raised four children before retiring.
The couple moved to Tarpon Springs in 1988, where Elmer died eight years later.
Although her husband wouldn't live to see the inauguration of the nation's first black president, Mildred said she is excited to see how the country has progressed.
"Martin Luther King said not to judge people by the color of their skin," she told the Times. "Now, it has come to pass."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.