Before Rosa Parks sat on that bus, before Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, Hiram E. Mann wanted to fly.
He got his chance to soar and secured his place in history as a member of the 332 Fighter Group, an all-black air regiment that integrated the military and became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Mann earned a Congressional Gold Medal for flying with distinction his P-51 Mustang Boss Lady, named for his wife of 68 years, Kathadaza.
Mann, now 87 and living in Titusville, will speak at area libraries Tuesday and Wednesday. To continue the legacy of the Airmen, he encourages anyone to join their ranks. Those who want to stay updated on the group and its events can actually join Tuskegee Airmen Inc. by going to the nonprofit organization's Web site, tuskegeeairmen.org, for an application.
The Times talked to Mann by telephone about his experiences and his take on current events.
Did you realize the importance of your mission when flying with the Tuskegee Airmen?
"The Nazis were going through Europe treating the women terribly. I had a young bride and a mother that I did not want treated like that. I wanted to volunteer to do what I could to keep them safe, and I did not want to be on the ground.
"Most Negroes in the Army were service-type units. They did menial labor. Negroes in the Navy worked in the galley or were cabin stewards. I am proud to say I know today Negro admirals … I am very proud of my little bit of what I could add to American history."
What is your most memorable experience from your time as an Airman?
"I prefer to reflect on my military career with pride and joy. It is extremely difficult to think about the sad situations. I hold no animosity to the Caucasians for not letting me into the service …
"My joy was the time I was up flying alone. At those times, they had not really tightened up on the limitations on flying into clouds."
Why should children care or need to know about something that happened 70 years ago?
"I like to get my story out … and I will speak to anyone. I push education. I was an admissions counselor for the Air Force Academy, and I push education …
"Don't worry about basketball and football. Learn the fundamentals. Then they can't take away from you what you have. That is my legacy or my pushing point."
How do you feel about Black History Month?
"It should be 12 months instead of the one month, the teaching of black history. Schoolkids don't know about it; young African-Americans don't know the hard time we had."
What is your opinion about President Obama, the nation's first black president?
"I am proud and very happy. My chest swole out so far (when he was elected). I am so proud, but I am so afraid for him. The good ol' boys still are not too happy."
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or [email protected]