A Tuskegee airman’s legacy
He stared at the faded black-and-white photograph, his eyes filling with tears, as his mind overflowed with nostalgic thoughts of a different era.
It was a time when the United States was at war — not only against other countries, but also at war against itself for racial equality. The photo he gripped tightly in his furrowed hands contained a younger version of himself along with other men, all dressed in military uniforms, smiling as they posed in front of a B-25 bomber. However, their smiles did not reflect the turmoil that was prevalent at the time.
His name is former 1st Lt. Edward “Gibby” Gibson, and he is a Tuskegee airman.
“If I could do it all over again,” said Gibson, pausing as he lowers the photo from his sight, “I would.”
Gibson was born in 1922. Growing up in Charleston, SC, racial segregation was an everyday part of his life. But even in the segregated south, Gibson had dreams of soaring above the prejudice. He was fascinated with airplanes. However, he never dreamed that fascination would one day bring him soaring through the clouds as a Tuskegee airman.
In fact, Gibson simply wanted to be treated like everyone else.
“Back then, my family didn’t have much money. I would mow yards all day and only make 50 cents doing it. All of my money went toward buying model airplanes that I put together myself,” said Gibson.
As Gibson grew older, his education became more expensive, which meant spending less money on his beloved model airplanes.
“I was the only African American at an all white school,” said Gibson. “The tuition was $3.50, and even that was challenging for my family to afford. Instead of buying model planes, any money that I made went toward my education.”
Gibson was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1942 and was stationed at Walterboro, SC. Due to his outstanding education and work ethic, he was allowed to test to become an officer. After successfully passing his examination, he was sent to aviation cadet training at Keesler Army Airfield in Biloxi, MS. Gibson’s dream of flying airplanes for the U.S. military was becoming a reality. He was one of only four cadets chosen from Keesler Army Airfield to go to the Tuskegee Institute at Tyndall Airfield in Panama City, FL.
Gibson was part of a program called the “Tuskegee Experiment.” The program taught African Americans how to fly and maintain combat aircraft. A Tuskegee aircrew consisted of pilots, navigators, bombardiers, instructors, maintenance personnel and support staff, all of whom played a vital part in keeping their planes in the air.
“I was so excited when they chose me to train at the Tuskegee Institute,” said Gibson, who served as a bombardier. “It was the most thrilling experience of my life.”
Despite enduring constant ridicule and prejudice by many white service members, Gibson, along with the other Tuskegee airmen, persevered. They were determined to do their part in fighting the war. However, in the grand scheme of things, they were changing the U.S. military forever.
After Gibson completed his bombardier training, he was sent to Midland Field, Texas, to train to become an aircraft navigator. It was there that Gibson received his navigation wings and was commissioned as an officer.
“I was so excited to go home and see my family after I was commissioned,” said Gibson. “My family was so proud to see me wearing my aerial gunner uniform and I was able to show the world that I was an officer in the military for my wonderful country.”
However, when Gibson returned home, he didn’t receive a warm welcome from everyone.
“I was walking down the street and some white military officers came up to me and asked where I got my uniform,” said Gibson. “I told them I was in the military, but they didn’t believe me. I was arrested on the spot for impersonating an officer. At the time, I couldn’t believe what was happening.
“My mother couldn’t even get me out of jail,” said Gibson. “She had to ask her employer, who was white, to get me out.”
The discrimination didn’t discourage Gibson.
After being released from jail, he went to Godman Field, Fort Knox where he became a bombardier navigator for the 477th Bombardment Group, 616th Squadron flying B-25 bombers. While Gibson and his crew were training for the invasion of Japan, the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the end of WWII.
Gibson went on to join the Army Reserve before eventually leaving the military.
After separating from the Reserve, Gibson, along with seven other African American men, were chosen to take an exam for an apprentice program at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. These men were the first African Americans to be accepted into the program, however, they were once again subject to racial discrimination by their white co-workers.
“The instructor at the shipyard wouldn’t help me because of the color of my skin,” said Gibson. “He wouldn’t answer my questions, made life difficult for us and even used some pretty offensive language. This just gave me the inspiration to prove him wrong.”
Gibson used his military training and the lessons he learned from those less tolerant of others, to forge a path for other minorities to follow.
Gibson served as the first full-time equal employment counselor at the Charleston Naval Shipyard, handling more than 1,000 cases of alleged discrimination. He retired from the shipyard after 38 years, in 1980.
“All these experiences made me stronger,” said Gibson.
“I will never forget that I am able to call myself an original Tuskegee airman, something very few of us can say,” said Gibson. “America isn’t perfect and she may be down on her luck, but I will be there to hold her hand until she gets well.”