ST. PETERSBURG — Arque Dickerson enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942. A year later he officially joined the ranks of the Tuskegee Airmen.
He considered it one of the proudest moments of his life.
The Airmen included more than 16,000 men and women whose efforts supported nearly 1,000 African-American fighter pilots, together making up the "Tuskegee Experience." Mr. Dickerson tried his hand at flying and was rated a good fighter pilot. Though he never saw combat, he went on to train other military pilots.
Other Tuskegee Airmen escorted bombers over Germany, Italy and North Africa during World War II. They have taken a place in history as an important influence in desegregating the military — something that did not happen until 1948 — and a forerunner of the civil rights movement.
Mr. Dickerson went on to a career in industrial design, specializing in aircraft interiors. Clients included Queen Elizabeth II, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and the royal family of Sweden. He remained grateful to have been a part of a historic mission and attended gatherings of a chapter named after a fellow airman, Daniel "Chappie" James, the first African-American four-star general.
Mr. Dickerson, who soared above the discrimination he faced in and out of the military, died June 18 after an illness. He was 91.
The Airmen, who formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the Army Air Forces, were nicknamed "Red Tails" for the distinctive red paint that members of the 332nd applied to the tails of their P-47 and P-51 planes. They racked up a distinguished record, often outgunning the Germans who had more planes in the sky and earning 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
For Mr. Dickerson, the Tuskegee Airmen achieved an equally important victory at home.
"We all had a reason for being there," he told the Times several years ago. "It was proving that black people could fly."
Had the country not been at war, its military would likely not have trained black pilots. Jim Crow laws mandating segregation prevailed, especially in the South. White instructors at Tuskegee Army Air Field sometimes did as much to hinder their progress as to assist it.
German prisoners of war brought to Tuskegee sometimes asked the Airmen, "Why would you want to go over there and fight us when you're being treated so badly here?" Mr. Dickerson recalled in another interview.
"Of course, they made a good point. But we pushed all of that aside."
Only about one in four aspiring Airmen in his class became wartime pilots. Though he did not make the cut, the Army Air Forces classified Mr. Dickerson a fighter pilot shortly after the war and sent him to MacDill Air Force Base, where he served as a technical instructor.
He left the service in 1946 as a sergeant. A year later he enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. A professor there told him he was wasting his time studying industrial engineering because no one would hire him.
Numerous companies did. Eventually he started Arque Dickerson Industrial Design. Over the years he worked with Saab, Boeing, Northwest Airlines and British Aerospace, among others, designing instrument panels or other parts of the interior of airplanes, including the Concorde.
Arque Bradford Dickerson was born in St. Louis in 1923, the son of a trumpet player in Cab Calloway's band. He was married three times for about 20 years each. Ulla Grundberg, his second wife, was Swedish. Geraldine McGuinness, with whom he moved to St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, is from the United Kingdom.
He looked back on the Tuskegee Airmen as "a vindication," said Birgitta Dickerson, 46, a lawyer and Mr. Dickerson's daughter.
At his assisted living facility, she said, "A lot of (World War II veterans) would come over and thank him for what he and others had accomplished. And these were gentlemen that were Caucasian."
A spokeswoman for Tuskegee Airmen, a nonprofit historical organization, said it is unclear how many of the original Airmen are still alive.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.