More than 70 years ago, the U.S. military sought to keep its ranks entirely male and white, only reluctantly accepting blacks like him, Eugene Richardson said.
Now the same military is eager to employ women and minorities, said the former Tuskegee Airman, encouraging the black and other minority students gathered before him to consider careers in the armed forces.
Richardson, 90, was among the first black aviators activated by the U.S. armed forces.
"Black kids need to know their history. They need to know how black people contributed to this country," Richardson said after his presentation Monday to the Aviation Adventure Club of the Catholic Partnership Schools - a coalition of local Catholic schools - in the gymnasium of St. Cecilia School in Pennsauken.
"It's a great story, and I hope it's an inspiration to young kids. For them to see what's possible for them."
Their right to join the military was hard-won, he told the students.
He told of Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the 332nd Fighter Group, which was composed of squadrons made up of Tuskegee graduates.
Davis was ostracized at West Point because of his race, Richardson recounted. He didn't even have roommates during the four years he spent at the school, he said.
"Your teachers told me you guys can't go a class period without talking," Richardson said to his young audience. "Benjamin Davis went four years."
Richardson spoke of how Davis' desire to accomplish his dreams and his self-discipline allowed him to succeed.
"It's all available to you if you're willing to do that dirty little four letter word: W-O-R-K," Richardson said.
Richardson also discussed other black pioneers of aviation, including Bessie Coleman, the first black female pilot, and Eugene Bullard, the first black man to fly a military plane. Both earned their pilot licenses in France, and Bullard flew for the French military during World War I.
"In this country, we had to sue the Army to become pilots in 1939," Richardson told the students.
The 99th Fighter Squadron was the first composed of pilots who graduated from the Tuskegee program, Richardson said. He said they were ready for combat by August 1942, but for months no commander wanted to take on a black squadron.
"They didn't want black men to fly airplanes. They wanted black men digging ditches and sweeping floors and loading trucks," Richardson said.
The Tuskegee Airmen would make their mark on the war. Out of the nearly 1,000 men who completed training at the former Tuskegee Institute in Alabama during World War II, 355 served as fighter pilots in Europe and North Africa. Nearly 70 of them died in combat while more than 30 became prisoners of war.
The airmen completed thousands of sorties over about 1,500 missions. They earned a number of honors, including Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, and Purple Hearts.
In 2007, President George W. Bush and Congress awarded the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal. Richardson showed his medal to the students, which he said the airmen received for being instrumental in ending segregation in the military.
Richardson was born in Cleveland, joined the service while living in Camden, later became an educator, and currently resides in the Wynnefield Heights section of Philadelphia.
He completed training at Tuskegee in March 1945, two months before the war ended in Europe. He did not experience any combat.
When one student asked him if he fought during World War II, Richardson quipped, "When Hitler heard I was coming, he surrendered."
The Aviation Adventure Club is run by the Camden Youth Aviation Program, which was cofounded in 2010 by Ira Weissman, a Cherry Hill business consultant, and Msgr. Michael Mannion, a diocesan official.
Weissman earned his private pilot's license nearly 40 years ago. He said the program educates young people about aviation and conducts activities such as trips to airports.
Weissman said he invited Richardson to speak to the students not only to teach them about the history of segregation in the military, but to help give them a positive role model.
"For most of the people in inner cities, their role models are sports stars, it's actors and actresses, and it's the musicians," he said. "If you think about it, yes, there are some really good role models, but a lot of them are not."