Two days before Independence Day, on July 2, Lt. Col. Eldridge Williams died at his Kendall area home near The Falls at age 97. His companion of 17 years, Rosa White, was by his side.
“He made great choices in life,” White said. “This was a man who entered this world under adverse circumstances and encountered numerous others, nevertheless made decisions and choices that resulted in a level of success for himself and a record of providing assistance to others.”
Indeed, after serving during World War II — after Congress passed an act in 1941 to compel the U.S. Army Air Corps to train blacks at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama — Williams once again served his country during the 1948 Berlin Airlift and again in the Korean War.
“He was the embodiment of patriotism, and like his fellow Tuskegee Airmen, he faced great odds during World War II but completed his mission with a dignity and distinction that is befitting the veterans of the Greatest Generation,” Miami-Dade Aviation Director Emilio T. González said in a statement.
Born in Washington County, Texas, on Nov. 2, 1917, Williams moved to Richmond Heights, a community in South Miami-Dade established for black serviceman returning from World War II, in 1949. He retired from military service in 1963. He would then reshape his adopted community in Miami.
Williams taught physical education at Richmond Heights Middle School. Fitness and education, he decided early in life, would be means to a better future. Within two years, he was promoted to administrator, tasked with integrating Dade County public schools. He retired in 1985.
Mentoring children became his life’s passion, according to White.
“He really talked about it a lot,” she said. “He was always concerned about children and the dropout situation. He wanted to see to it that the school system had some programs for these kids who dropped out of schools. That was his big thing.”
But Williams’ role as one of the Tuskegee Airmen eventually brought him overdue acclaim. President George W. Bush presented Williams and the other living airmen the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, inside the Capitol Rotunda in 2007.
“The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war, and you helped change our nation,” Bush told the honorees.
Two years later, Williams was among the airmen who received a special invitation to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
“At the time of the draft, I was a senior in college,” Williams recalled before a group of Miami school children in 2009 while being honored by the Homestead/Florida City Human Relations Board. He told the kids of earning his degree in education from Xavier University in New Orleans in 1941 before joining the military. “All around, there are signs that say blacks and whites. In spite of the difficulties, you still carried out your job.”
Williams was first commissioned as Second Lieutenant on Miami Beach in 1942. At Officer Candidate School on the Beach, his classmate was Hollywood screen legend Clark Gable. Williams wasn’t afforded the respect a white actor would enjoy in that era. On graduation day, families rushed the stage to pin the U.S. flag on the graduates’ beige jackets.
But in Miami Beach, in 1942, blacks were not welcomed. Without fanfare, Williams calmly placed his jacket on the sand, squatted before it, and quietly pinned the flag on his jacket.
He was assigned to the Tuskegee Institute, where an army doctor grounded him, citing “poor eyesight.”
Call it just another one of the “oddball things” that happened as he was “trying to get [my] wings” in a segregated country, Williams recalled in a 2011 Miami Herald feature.
As a captain, Williams trained Tuskegee Airmen who flew overseas to escort bomber planes across Europe. No bomber plane would be shot down while under Tuskegee Airmen protection. Though he didn’t make it overseas — “I wanted to go because if you are on the team, you want to play,” he once said — he flew at the Tuskegee Institute and served as a flight instructor until the end of World War II.
“For years, I thought what else could I have done to change the course of events,” Williams pondered in a 2011 Herald feature. “The laws at the time just did not allow for much to happen. But when you look up at an airplane in the sky, you can’t tell if a pilot is black or white.”
In addition to White, Williams is survived by his daughter Catherine. Services are pending, and Williams will be interred at Arlington Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the Miami Tuskegee Airmen, P.O. Box 172072, Hialeah, Fl. 33017.