Tuskegee Airmen witness history

They had long held grand dreams. To prove they could fly as well as any pilot ever born. To raise families they could be proud of. To push back against racial discrimination that had hobbled their parents and threatened to limit their children.

Tuesday, men in their late 80s and 90s sat as a group in the cold of Washington, D.C., to witness one of their biggest dreams come true.

Some 200 members of the Tuskegee Airmen _ whose often stellar service in all-black WWII aviation units helped end racial segregation in the military _ watched from honorary seats near the inaugural podium as Barack Obama was sworn in as America’s first African-American president.

Spann Watson, 92, was among the Airmen who accepted invitations from Congress to attend the inauguration.

“I have a lot of hope for this country now,” Watson said, moments after cannon fire signaled the beginning of the Obama administration. “This country will change to its very bottom rung.”

Doubts about whether the Airmen would be able to attend were lifted earlier this month when the Presidential Inaugural Committee arranged to escort the elderly veterans through security checkpoints and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds.

Watson, whose family moved north from South Carolina in response to a lynching in 1926, said there was never any doubt that he would find a way to see history made.

He had been making preparations to attend all weekend with the checklist care of an airplane pilot. On Saturday he got his hair cut and retrieved his trademark Tuskegee Airmen red blazer from the dry cleaner’s.

On Sunday night he packed and repacked his luggage, testing the buttons on his clothing to make sure they held, and taking care to include an extra pair of black formal slacks so that “in case I rip my pants I won’t have to walk around Washington with a hole in my pants.”

On Monday he was at Manhattan’s Penn Station by shortly after 9 a.m., nearly an hour before his train was scheduled to depart for Washington.

In the hours before the inauguration ceremony, a joy seemed to permeate the spirit of many of the Airmen.

Lee Archer of Manhattan, one of the best-known of the Airmen, likened America’s longtime preoccupation with skin color to a collective mental illness and said Obama’s greatest contribution to progress may be that he has encouraged a young generation of voters to move beyond that preoccupation. He compared Obama to a psychologist now charged with helping Americans get beyond their preoccupation with race.

“Dr. Obama is curing them,” Archer said. “And he’s doing an outstanding job.”

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.