Harold Slater wore the vestiges of his military service long after he last put on a uniform.
“It created the quilt of who he actually was,” said his daughter, Kimberly Slater-Wood. “A very proud, very humble, very smart, very wise man.”
But Slater never talked about his service until one day in 2012, when Regis Bobonis Sr., a retired Pittsburgh journalist and amateur historian, asked for Slater’s help. Bobonis wanted to capture the stories of Pittsburgh’s Tuskegee Airmen, and Slater had served as a mechanic with the 477th Bombardment Group.
Though a stroke had paralyzed the left side of his body and confined him to a bed in his Hill District home, Slater’s memories were sharp, and they came spilling forth: the Jim Crow racism African-American soldiers had to endure, the way Nazi prisoners received better treatment than they did, the pride and privilege of serving his country.
“This,” he told his daughter after Bobonis left, “is the happiest day of my life.”
Pittsburgh seems quite a distance from Tuskegee, Alabama. But it was there, at an army airfield and at nearby Tuskegee University, where thousands of African American pilots, navigators, bombardiers and support personnel were trained and formed into black squadrons to fight in World War II.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American aviators and military support soldiers in what was then still a racially segregated U.S. armed forces. According to Bobonis’ research, the Pittsburgh region sent the largest contingent of black airmen trained at Tuskegee and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, including the only woman, Rosa Mae Willis Alford of Beaver County.
Meeting Slater and dozens of other Tuskegee Airmen from the Pittsburgh area inspired Bobonis to spearhead two lasting memorials for the aviators and support personnel: a plaza with four grand, granite monuments at Sewickley Cemetery, and a museum-quality photographic display in Pittsburgh International Airport’s Concourse A.
Both exhibits are open to the public. Sewickley Cemetery’s gate opens at 6 a.m. and closes at dusk; PIT visitors can get a myPITpass at the third-floor ticket counter to access the airside terminal.
Bobonis credited the rush of local enlistees to Robert L. Vann, the legendary editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the most prominent black newspapers in the U.S. at the time. In April 1938, Vann wrote an open letter to the nation’s leaders, on the front page of his newspaper:
“Although colored citizens have participated with honor and distinction in every war the United States has fought, and died in the thousands that this grand Republic might live, they are today barred from virtually all service in our army and navy which they help support.
“… Do you believe that all branches of the army and naval service should be open to Negroes? Or do you think there should be an entire Negro division, including all arms of the service and officered at least in the line, by educated colored men, in the army; and a squadron completely manned by Negroes in the navy?
“We feel this question is important at this time when the whole matter of national defense is uppermost in our minds and the dangers of fascism, nazism and communism are more real than ever before.”
The open letter helped to stir a sense of duty and patriotism across the country, but particularly in Vann’s hometown.
“He believed that, as black men, they should all leap at the opportunity to prove the doubters, the naysayers, the racists wrong,” said Bobonis’ son, Regis Bobonis Jr.
And they did. The Tuskegee Airmen earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, three Distinguished Unit Citations and a collective Congressional Gold Medal, among other honors.
“Their list of achievements is impressive, to say the least,” said CeCe Poister, a former Airport Authority employee who was instrumental in bringing the Tuskegee display to PIT. “They had a lot of grit.”
A Lasting Legacy
Poister still serves as an airport ambassador — a volunteer who provides assistance to travelers — and when she spots members of the military in the terminal, she always recommends they stop to see the Tuskegee display. Those who take her up on it never leave disappointed, she said.
The display, designed by RL Smith Graphics of Ohio, features the names and enlistment photographs of Pittsburgh’s Tuskegee contingent, more than 100 strong. But it also pays tribute to what they achieved after their service was complete.
Wendell Freeland became a prominent attorney. Robert Higginbotham became a doctor. Rosa Mae Willis Alford was the first African-American guidance counselor in the Beaver Falls School District. In the right corner of the display is a photo of Harold Slater, who became a barber, wearing sideburns. The sight still makes Slater-Wood laugh nearly five years after her father died.
Bobonis Sr. is gone now, too. But his son, who lives near Sewickley Cemetery and often walks among its monuments, smiles upon his father’s stone legacy each time he visits, and he thinks of what the memorial has meant to the Tuskegee veterans and their families. One veteran, Mitchell Higginbotham, was so moved that he asked to be buried there upon his death. The cemetery honored his wishes in 2016.
“I’m very proud of my father’s hard work,” Bobonis said. “I don’t think you’re going to find — outside of Tuskegee, Alabama — a memorial to African-American veterans as impressive as this one.”
He wishes more people would visit the memorial so that they can learn more about the role Pittsburghers played in World War II. So do Slater-Wood and Poister.
In a perfect world, they say, travelers would see the display at PIT and be inspired to visit the memorial in Sewickley; schools would bus children to the airport or the cemetery to see history up close.
Slater-Wood, Bobonis Sr.’s successor as chair of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region, has made it her mission to move people to the memorials this year, gathering a consortium of volunteers to welcome and educate visitors.
“It’s so important not to lose sight of where all of us has come from,” Slater-Wood said. “They paid the price for the freedoms and liberties that we enjoy today.”