Given the challenge of naming a bridge on American Legion Highway in Dorchester, Julian McNeil and Gerry Ellis-Williams wanted their choice to inspire young men like themselves and to honor African-Americans who have made major contributions to US history.
They decided to call the structure the Tuskegee Airmen Bridge. It is the name given to the all-black unit that fought through racist American attitudes to become the first African-American pilots battling Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II. About 14 Massachusetts residents were pilots in the unit, which became known as the Red Tails for the color painted on their aircraft.
“I have a lot of gratitude because they paved the way for a lot of African-Americans in the United States today,’’ Ellis-
Williams said following the naming ceremony attended by some of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen and Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “They make me realize that there’s really not too much you can’t do when you put your mind to it and when you dedicate yourself to it.’’
“They showed that no matter what is going on — even if the times were segregated then and they aren’t now — that once we come together and realize what we are capable of, anything is possible,’’ said Ellis-Williams, 19, a student at Mount Ida College in Newton.
The naming assignment came to McNeil and Ellis-
Williams through the Menino administration and the Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester.
During a ceremony Tuesday, Menino praised the Airmen as they sat underneath a yellow-and-white-striped tent erected on the street to provide shelter from the sun. The ceremony marked the end of the rebuilding of American Legion Highway, a major Dorchester artery.
“The Airmen showed the world what we all knew, that African-Americans can provide service and great leadership if only given the opportunity,’’ Menino said. “It’s such an honor to pave for a new bridge for the men who helped pave the way for the full integration of the US military. Let’s all say thank you to them.’’
One of those airmen, Boston High School graduate and long-time community activist Enoch O’d Woodhouse II, said he believes the sacrifices he and others made more than seven decades ago provide a crucial learning tool for young men today, especially for those involved in gangs.
“For the gang bangers and the young men who don’t want to do the right thing, I just want them to bear in mind that their elders came through and worked hard so they could have an opportunity to get an education, to better themselves, and to respect our women on the streets,’’ said Woodhouse, 86.
“For our young people, this is crucial. What all of us went through wasn’t easy. But . . . we remember the old saying that you only lose when you quit. Never quit,” he said.
More than 1,000 African-Americans trained to be pilots at Tuskegee, Ala., and more served as support personnel for the unit, according to the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. website.
Charles Yancey, a Boston city councilor who had two uncles serve with the Airmen, pointed out that African-American Crispus Attucks died during the Boston Massacre in 1770, but the struggle to be recognized as military leaders continued into the 20th century and World War II.
“It’s a long overdue recognition of the contributions that African-Americans have been making to the military effort going back to the founding of the United States of America,’’ he said.
Eillis-Williams, who lives near the bridge, said he believes the Tuskegee Airmen never expected to be honored with a bridge being named after them in Dorchester, or anywhere else in the country. That, he said, was also inspirational.
“I’m pretty sure they were just doing what they felt was right for their country,’’ he said. “But you never know how far little things can get you in life.’’
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