[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n a serene and somewhat chilly Nov. 2 evening, friends, neighbors and admirers gathered to celebrate the 97th birthday of one of South Florida’s most noteworthy residents, Tuskegee Airman Lt. Colonel Eldridge Williams. Compatriots both old and new came to honor the living legend in his home, sharing warm anecdotes about their interlocking lives in a touching program marked by warm and compassionate appreciation.
“This has been one of the best personal experiences I have had, having all of my friends and neighbors gather here,” said Williams, a longtime
Miami resident. “I feel so grateful because, although I’ve had some wonderful, but somewhat impersonal experiences, this is so personal, so touching to me, that it cuts right to my heart. This has been a tremendous neighborhood to live in and I feel very proud and honored today.”
Williams’ life story reads like an Oscar winning screenplay. Born in 1917, he was brought up picking cotton on plantations while dreaming of a better life. Recognizing that education and sports were his clearest paths to success, he stayed fit throughout his youth and pursued higher learning, earning a degree in business administration from Western University in 1936 and in education from Xavier University in 1941.
Despite often being treated as a second-class citizen due to the color of his skin, his sense of duty remained strong, and he enlisted for aviation service almost immediately after graduating from college. His intended unit was the newly-founded Tuskegee Airmen.
“I was called during the first draft of 1940, but I had a deferment because I was a senior in college and I was allowed to graduate,” he said.
“When I went to take my visual examination for flight training, I reported at eight in the morning, along with four white kids. They were civilians; I was a private in the army.”
He watched as the four others who had arrived after him were each called in. Finally, at 5 p.m., the doctor called him in and, after a rudimentary once-over, rejected his application outright. “I was rejected for flight training because of the fact that I was, shall I say, a Negro, that’s what it said on the application: ‘Is this individual qualified for flight training? No. N-E-G-R-O,’” he recalled.
“I’ve always had a strong patriotic feeling and to be treated that way because of my color was a shock, but it was only the beginning.”
Dejected but still determined, he entered basic training and two weeks later was moved into the office as a clerk due to his typing ability. From there, he was selected for officer training, but encountered two more setbacks, once again because of his race. He finally was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps and assigned to the Tuskegee Army Airfield in 1942. While there, he rose to the rank of captain and trained 992 officers.
After being discharged, Williams became the head basketball coach at North Carolina A&T College, but was recalled in 1948 during the Berlin Airlift. He took part in his first integrated assignment on the island of Okinawa.
After 23 combined years of service, he retired with the rank of lieutenant-colonel and joined the Dade County Public School system in 1964, serving as coordinator of federal programs, director of administrative staffing and policy development, director of desegregation in 1971 and executive director of personnel in 1978.
He retired in 1985, leaving behind a legacy that showcases the greatest aspects of the American Dream: the indomitable human spirit, selfless dedication to service and the passing of those ideals down through the generations.