The Richmond Register

July 23, 2007

Alumni honor WWII pilot

Bill Robinson

From 1906 to 1956, when Kentucky education was strictly segregated, Richmond High School provided secondary schooling for black students in Richmond and Madison County.

RHS graduates distinguished themselves in many endeavors. Three were fighter pilots in World War II.

The RHS alumni, who gather for a reunion every two years, Saturday night honored Frank D. Walker, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen who flew combat planes for the U.S. Air Force at a time when they had to endure the indignities of segregation at home.

During the reunion banquet at Eastern Kentucky University, the RHS alumni also awarded college scholarships to 10 of their descendents and talked about creating a legacy organization to preserve the memory of their alma mater.

In addition to Walker, RHS alumni Gene Runyon and John Harris trained as pilots at Tuskegee, Ala., and flew combat missions in Europe, according to Ron Spriggs of Nicholasville, who maintains a Tuskegee exhibit at the Kentucky Aviation Museum in Lexington.

Spriggs, who frequently addresses school and civic groups, brought his traveling exhibit to Richmond for the reunion.

Some 992 black aviators trained at the Tuskegee air base in a pioneering program advocated by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Willa Brown of Glasgow, the first black woman pilot in the United States.

Walker, who graduated from RHS in 1938, was a student at West Virginia State College when WWII started. His brother Bill and sister Jamie, also RHS graduates, were fellow college students there at the time. The Walker brothers joined the Army in 1942, and Frank applied for flight training at Tuskegee with an application provided by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said their youngest sister Ann Collins, RHS class of 1953, who addressed the reunion.

The Tuskegee flyers, 450 of whom were assigned to escort bombers and support ground combat operations in south central Europe, lost 150 men to accidents and combat, but never lost an escorted bomber to enemy aircraft, Spriggs said.

An exhibit of Walker’s memorabilia included a photo with his mother Mary and brother Bill, also an Army officer, at a postwar victory banquet given at Richmond High for its alumni veterans.

“My mother used pieces of Frank’s and Bill’s uniforms to make a quilt,” said Collins, who lives in Orinda, Calif., and is 12 years younger than any of her siblings.

After the war, Frank Walker worked as a mail carrier and rarely spoke about his wartime service, Collins said.

“He didn’t talk about it much until my son Neil started asking him questions,” she said. As their conversations continued the two grew close and Walker presented Neil his pilot’s wings.

In more recent years, the honors have started rolling in for Walker. Earlier this year, he traveled to Washington, D.C., as the Tuskegee Airmen received a unit citation from President George W. Bush. In August 2006, he was honored by Gov. Ernie Fletcher at the Kentucky Veterans Welcome Home Celebration.

He also has received an honorary doctoral degree from the Tuskegee Institute and the city of Richmond has named a section of East Main Street the Frank D. Walker Parkway.

In addition to hearing from Collins and Spriggs, the RHS alumni were addressed by alumna Clara Mae Phelps-Broyles, class of 1953, a retired social worker from Hamilton, Ohio, and the granddaughter of Richmond agriculturalist and poet Henry Allen Lane.

The Tuskegee Airmen left “a proud legacy for their race, their community and their country,” she said.

Recalling “The Good Old Days,” Phelps-Broyles said, “Things were simpler then. Postage stamps were three cents, bread was 16 cents a loaf and gasoline was 20 cents a gallon. Running boards and fenders adorned automobiles. Movie tickets were 12 cents, but we sat in the balcony only. Can you still do the jitterbug?”

Another fond memory was the Richmond High Ramblers’ 1943 state basketball championship.

The old days were not all good, she said. Drinking fountains, restrooms, transportation and schools were all segregated. “Faith in God and a strong work ethic,” however, “saw us and our forefathers through the years of Jim Crow, segregation and the struggle for civil rights.”

The world has changed dramatically since Richmond High graduated its last class in 1956, she said. (The school building, which is now part of the Telford YMCA, continued to serve as a junior high and elementary school until 1973.) “Desegregation prevailed, and today’s students have computers and cell phones.”

Recent years also have seen a decline in “the work ethic and moral values,” Phelps-Broyles said.

“We need organizations like the Richmond High School Alumni Association to remind us of where we came from and how far we have come.”

Bill Robinson can be reached at brobinson@richmondregister.com or at 623-1669, Ext. 267.