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Tuskegee Airman from Sewickley reflects on obstacles

| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 9:33 p.m.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Tuskegee Airman Robert Higginbotham of Rancho Mirage, Calif., formerly of Sewickley, poses with one of the monuments at the Tuskegee Airmen memorial at Sewickley Cemetery Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. The memorial will be unveiled during a ceremony Sunday.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Tuskegee Airman Robert Higginbotham of Rancho Mirage, Calif., formerly of Sewickley, poses with one of the monuments at the Tuskegee Airmen memorial at Sewickley Cemetery Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. The memorial will be unveiled during a ceremony Sunday.

Dr. Robert Higginbotham was defiant from an early age, fighting against injustices against black people as he grew up in Sewickley and later when he entered the military.

Higginbotham, 87, and nearly 100 other Tuskegee Airmen from Western Pennsylvania will be honored Sunday during a dedication ceremony in Sewickley Cemetery for the largest outdoor Tuskegee Airmen memorial in the country.

A group of amateur historians from the Daniel B. Matthews Historical Society in Sewickley have spent two decades planning, researching, designing and fundraising for the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial project.

The Airmen were members of an all-black Army Air Corps unit during World War II who overcame racial discrimination to fight for the United States.

Higginbotham said his own fight against bigotry started in elementary school, when he was accused by a teacher of cheating on a test because he got the best grade.

He was told to go stand in the cloakroom as punishment before he being sent to the principal's office, where he tried to make his case.

“I said, ‘I'd like to explain something to you. How could I have cheated off of someone and made a better grade than that person?”

Still, he was told his mother would have to come in for a meeting the next morning.

“She was ruffled,” Higginbotham said.

“We went to the principal's office the next morning, promptly at 8 o'clock, and the principal goes on to tell my mother what I had done, and again, I reiterated. And my mother looked at him and wagged her finger front of his face and said, ‘Don't you ever call my son a liar and have me miss a day from work.'”

In high school, Higginbotham fought to take academic courses instead of the general trade classes toward which he was ushered.

“So again, my mother had to go out to the school and get me over into the academic course.”

Though he described himself back then as a “mischievous young man,” he excelled in academics and athletics, though, he said, prejudice prevented him from lettering in all of the four sports he played.

He declined to attend his own graduation ceremony in 1944. He said that a white classmate was selected as the class honoree over a black student.

“I did not go to my graduating class because the school and the system was not fair, and I have lived with that for the rest of my life. I denied my parents the honor of seeing me walking down the aisle and getting my diploma because of my own honesty and dedication to fairness.”

Higginbotham took the examination to join the Army Air Corps before finishing at Sewickley High School in 1944. He said he was the only black person in the room.

Those who passed the examination were given the opportunity to join the Army Air Corps or Naval Air Corps. Liking the look of the Navy uniform better, Higginbotham chose that line.

“When I got up to the officer that was taking the applications, he looked up at me and said, ‘You're in the wrong line. You have to go in the other line. We don't take blacks in the Navy.'”

From the time he boarded a train to head to basic training, Higginbotham was treated with unfairness, he said. He and six other black inductees were forced to stand the whole ride from just outside of Cincinnati to Biloxi, Miss., to make room for white passengers. By the time the train arrived in Biloxi, Higginbotham said, he and his new friends were hungry. They stopped in a store there to get food but were not served.

“That was our induction to serving our country of the United States — going through degradation, discrimination, and down-and-out great hatred from the people we were going to fight for,” he said.

After completing basic training and passing other examinations, Higginbotham went to Tuskegee, Ala., where black cadets were trained to become pilots. Higginbotham's older brother, Mitchell, was a B-25 pilot and one of more than 100 black servicemen who were arrested in 1945 for attempting to enter a white officers club.

In 2007, the brothers and other Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

After his stint at Tuskegee, where he did not complete his course, Higginbotham moved on to a base in Florida. After breaking his arm, he was admitted into a medical unit where he was segregated to a porch area with three other patients.

After learning the soldiers all had sexually transmitted diseases, he snuck into an empty bed in the open area designated for white patients, but when caught, was forced to go back to the porch or be court-martialed.

When Higginbotham was discharged from the Army, he enrolled at Howard University in Washington, to study civil engineering before changing his major to pre-med and transferring to the University of Pittsburgh.

He was called back into the service during the Korean War, and after his second discharge, earned his medical degree in 1957. He had a private practice in Midland before moving to California with his wife, Margaret and two sons, Robert Jr. and Michael.

He retired in 1996 and currently resides in Rancho Mirage, Calif., with his wife.

Higginbotham got a sneak peek of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial last weekend when one of the monuments, boasting a granite Red Tail airplane, was unveiled. The rest of the $300,000 memorial features a plaza, four mourning benches, eight headstones and two granite towers with names of Tuskegee pilots, navigators, bombardiers and support crew members from the region.

“It's very nice. It's beautiful up there,” Higginbotham said.

“They say that the civil rights movement was started by Rosa Parks refusing to get up from her seat on the bus; however, the Tuskegee Airmen started the civil rights fight to that degree by being held in a base with barbed wires around it and soldiers and searchlights because they refused not to be able to go in the officers club in Freeman Field, Indiana,” he said.

“I cannot understand the hatred that (some) white people have for people of color in the land of the free and the home of the brave. How can you say that and sing that song with the dislike and hatred for people of color?”

Kristina Serafini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1405 orkserafini@tribweb.com.

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