Monumental day: Tuskegee Airmen Memorial dedicated at Sewickley Cemetery
Tuskegee Airman Harold Slater sat in a wheelchair, bundled up in an orange sweater and with a blanket covering his legs.
It was the first time Slater, of the Hill District, had been out of bed in three years after suffering a stroke, but his wife, Dolores, said they wouldn't have missed the dedication of the largest outdoor Tuskegee Airmen Memorial for anything. An ambulance was provided to transport the couple to and from the event.
“It's wonderful,” Dolores Slater said. “It's such an honor and pleasure to be here.”
The Slaters were two of about 500 people who attended the dedication Sunday at Sewickley Cemetery for the memorial honoring nearly 100 western Pennsylvania Tuskegee Airmen.
The ceremony culminated two decades of planning, researching, designing and fundraising for the project, which was started by a group of amateur historians from the Sewickley-based Daniel B. Matthews Historical Society.
Dane Cole of Penn Hills wore a Tuskegee Airmen T-shirt to the event to have it signed by some of the local airmen.
After Tuskegee Airman James Cotten, 86, formerly of Beltzhoover, scribbled his autograph in black marker on the shirt's screen-printed design, Cole said he attended the dedication to show his support for members of the all-black Army Air Corps who were subjected to racial discrimination during World War II.
“I know the history of Tuskegee,” he said. “It's an honor to be here.”
A long line of motorcyclists and their bikes overlooked the dedication ceremony from a hill above as Tuskegee Airmen, their families, friends and community members took their seats in front of the stage. Because of the high attendance, many spectators were forced to watch the ceremony from the grassy hillside.
“I'm in awe,” Martha Wilkins of Oberlin, Ohio, said, while looking around. Her brother, Bill Johnston, was a Tuskegee Airman.
Wilkins also attended several of the other events in the days leading up to the dedication, which included the unveiling of a Tuskegee Airmen Recognition Exhibit at Pittsburgh International Airport in Findlay and a performance of the Off-Broadway play “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” at the Byham Theater in Downtown.
Standing inside the memorial plaza, which features four mourning benches; a monument with a granite “Red Tail” flanked by two towers with names of pilots, bombardiers and support crew members from the region; and a monument with a bronze relief of western Pennsylvania airmen, Cotten said it was overwhelming and unbelievable.
Dr. Robert Higginbotham, 87, of Rancho Mirage, Calif., formerly of Sewickley, shared the same sentiments.
“It's great. I love it,” he said. “(The community) should be very proud of the participation and effort Sewickleyans put into this.”
At the end of the ceremony, Regis Bobonis Sr. of Sewickley, who spearheaded the $300,000 project, reflected on many years of hard work.
“I am so grateful and so fulfilled. The whole thing is bigger than I ever thought it would be,” he said.
“If I have done anything worthwhile in my life, it was to be a part of this.”
Kristina Serafini is a staff writer for the Sewickley Herald. She can be reached at 412-324-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.