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Tuskegee Airman will be first buried at Sewickley memorial

Jason Cato
| Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Mitchell Higginbotham
Mitchell Higginbotham
Mitchell Higginbotham
Mitchell Higginbotham

Mitchell Higginbotham soared through pilot training in Tuskegee, Ala., and later refused to allow his skin color to keep him out of a white officers' club on an Indiana base.

Mr. Higginbotham joined more than 100 other black commissioned officers in the Army Air Corps in an April 1945 protest at Freeman Field. The effort was part of the national “Double Victory” campaign to win World War II and end racial discrimination at home.

“While they didn't cause desegregation of the military, they kind of laid the foundation,” Michael Higginbotham of Baltimore said of his uncle and other officers. “My uncle, my dad and many of the other Tuskegee Airmen were patriots.

“They volunteered and served their country. But they also stood for equality.”

Mitchell Higginbotham died Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, at a nursing home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 94.

A son of Plinkam L. Higginbotham and Hester Higginbotham, his family moved from Amherst, Va., to Sewickley when he was a child. He graduated from Sewickley High School and Virginia State College.

He enlisted in the Army in 1942 and graduated in February 1945 as a member of class TE-44-K at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, where he learned to fly single- and multi-engine aircraft.

Mr. Higginbotham was commissioned a second lieutenant and became an original member of the 477th Bombardment Group. He remained on active duty until 1946 and served in the reserves until 1962.

His brother, Dr. Robert Higginbotham, 89, of Rancho Mirage, Calif., also served as a Tuskegee Airman — the first all-black group of pilots and support personnel.

“That's a remarkable Sewickley family. A lot of accomplishments in that family's ranks,” said local historian and Sewickley resident Regis D. Bobonis Sr.

After his military career ended, Mr. Higginbotham earned a master's degree from the University of Colorado.

He worked at the Urban League of Pittsburgh and later at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport. In the 1960s, Mr. Higginbotham moved to Southern California and was a Los Angeles County probation officer until retirement.

He and his brother in the 1970s helped found the Tuskegee Airmen National Scholarship Fund.

They later served as co-chairmen of the committee that founded the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region in Sewickley Cemetery. Mr. Higginbotham will become the first Tuskegee Airman to be buried there. Arrangements are still being made.

“It was quite interesting that a young man who grew up in Sewickley, was a product of Sewickley schools and went on to be a bombardier pilot, that his last wish was the he be buried at our memorial,” said Bobonis, a senior founder and chairman of the memorial.

Sewickley meant a lot to his uncle, Michael Higginbotham said. So did being a Tuskegee Airman.

In 1996, Mr. Higginbotham was named “Man of the Year” by the Los Angeles Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. In 2007, he and other Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Mr. Higginbotham carried business cards that read “Ambassador at-large” of Tuskegee Airmen and served as a consultant on “Red Tails,” the 2012 movie about the group.

“The most important thing for him in his life was being an airman. He understood how unique of an opportunity it was and the responsibility that went with it,” his nephew said. “He lived a good life, a long life and a life that made a difference.”

Memorials may be made in the name of Mitchell L. Higginbotham to the Tuskegee Airmen National Scholarship Fund, 1816 S. Figueroa St., Suite 418, Los Angeles, CA 90015.

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jcato@tribweb.com or 412-320-7936.

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