Some visitors say they feel like they’re on hallowed ground when they visit the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial along the lonely, narrow road winding up the wooded hillside that is home to the Sewickley Cemetery northwest of Pittsburgh.
The memorial, on land donated by the cemetery, honors the United States’ first African-American military aviators and support personnel who overcame racial prejudice and discrimination to help defeat the Nazis in World War II. Quite a few of those pilots hailed from Western Pennsylvania.
What many people don’t realize is that these brave and highly educated men were supported “by a dedicated and often forgotten cadre of women,” as Stephanie Siek noted in a 2012 story for CNN.
“The women of the so-called ‘Tuskegee Experience’ worked alongside male counterparts as mechanics, gate guards, control tower operators, aircraft fuselage technicians, secretaries and clerks,” according to the National Park Service, which operates the Tuskegee National Historic Site on the campus of Tuskegee University in Alabama.
One of those women, Rosa Mae Willis, was a Mississippi native who later married William J. Alford and spent much of her life working as an educator and guidance counselor outside Pittsburgh in New Brighton, Beaver County.
Rosa Mae Willis Alford is the second name that appears on the one of the four large monuments in the cemetery that comprise what Cece Poister, secretary of the memorial, calls “the largest outdoor memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen anywhere.”
Alford helped pay for her education at what was then Tuskegee Institute by working as a female skilled technician on the planes the pilots used for training at the Tuskegee Army Airfield, said her niece and closest surviving relative, Mtume Imani of New Brighton.
“She repaired planes to work her way through school,” Imani said, explaining that her aunt was extremely dexterous. “Auntee—that’s what we called her—was an excellent seamstress.”
Unfortunately, Imani said she doesn’t know as much as she’d like about her aunt’s experiences with the Tuskegee Airmen. Imani and her family lived in North Carolina and only saw Alford during family gatherings and visits.
By the time she moved to New Brighton to help care for her widowed, elderly aunt, “she had dementia and didn’t talk about things,” Imani said.
Alford died Jan. 20, 2011, at 98, Imani said.
It’s not known exactly how many women were among the estimated 15,000-16,000 support personnel who worked with the approximately 1,000 young aviators. As part of her 2012 story for CNN, Siek interviewed Ruth Jackson, then a research librarian at the University of California-Riverside who collected “oral histories from many of the female personnel” of the Tuskegee Experience.
Those she interviewed, Jackson told Siek, “believed very strongly, just the way the men did, that it was ridiculous … for the military to have believed that African-Americans were not intelligent or brave enough to fly.”
The women, Jackson said, “were very much devoted to the cause and the success of the experience. They felt very special to be part of it, as a matter of fact.”
Imani said she doesn’t know what prompted her aunt, whose father was an entrepreneur and whose mother was a homemaker, to enroll in Tuskegee.
Alford earned her degree in home economics, according to her obituary in The Times of Beaver County, and taught in schools in Alabama and Maryland, where she met her husband, a chemist who later worked in the steel industry.
‘She loved children’
The couple moved to his hometown of New Brighton, where Mrs. Alford worked in the 1950s as a home economics teacher, Imani said. She earned her master’s degree from Michigan State University in the 1960s and returned to the Beaver Valley, where she worked as a guidance counselor in the Beaver Falls schools, Imani said.
“An accomplished educator, Mrs. Alford was raised to believe the shortest way to first-class citizenship for the descendants of former slaves was in the classroom,” said Brenda F. Applegate, executive director of the Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation, reading from a biographical sketch the organization prepared for those whose names appear on the memorial in Sewickley Heights.
The memorial was dedicated on Sept. 15, 2013, Poister said.
“It was an honor to be there for the dedication of the memorial,” Imani said. “Auntee was the only female to be honored. She was a magnificent person, a beacon of the community.”
Imani said her aunt, who had no children of her own, was thrilled in her later years when former students would come up to her and say hello.
“She loved children. She used to say she never had a problem with any of them,” Imani said. “She was a teacher and a humanitarian.”