Donning his hat and jacket, both bearing sewn-on patches and the words “Red Tails,” Stephen Lawrence talked to Interlachen High School students about his experience in the first group of black pilots in the U.S. Air Force.
Lawrence, 97, was a part of the Tuskegee Airmen, a segregated unit that played a role in President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order to integrate the military.
One of the last living members of that era, he was invited to share his story Friday with Ruth Amar’s 12th-grade classes.
Speaking about his experience living segregated in the unit and in a society bound by Jim Crow laws, he said he survived by living with what the situation gave him.
“You might be in a family with a baby treated the best all the time, and you feel neglected. You can’t do nothing about it,” he said. “It’s no different than living in segregation.”
Before he was drafted in 1943 and after World War II, Lawrence worked as a welder, doing ship work for the U.S. Merchant Marines. In 1960, he was baptized during the 1960 Billy Graham Crusades and later became a pastor.
“We did our job, and I loved what I did,” he said. “When the war was over, they said, ‘There’s the door.’ I took the door.”
About living with Jim Crow, he didn’t have to say much about what it was like at that time.
All one has to do is see its impact decades after those laws were abandoned, he said.
Like many black pilots in World War II, Lawrence didn’t receive military commendations until decades later. In March 2007, President George W. Bush presented about 300 surviving airmen with Congressional Gold Medals.
In July 2007, Lawrence and four other men were presented with medals by then-U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla.
As of September, Lawrence is one of 13 of the 355 single-engine pilots in the all-black unit, according to the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
Amar said Lawrence is a fixture in the community. A former grocery bagger at a Publix in Gainesville, where they both live, he’s well-known in the city for his service and charisma.
“He’s living history,” Amar said. “I can teach my students from a textbook, but this time they can learn what it was like then from a primary source.”
After Lawrence’s lecture, Nicholas Boyd, one of Amar’s students who plans to enlist in the military after graduation, hugged Lawrence and thanked him for his service.
“Being able to meet a legend like this is a true inspiration,” Boyd said. “His speech gave me a sense of enlightenment and satisfaction with my future and how I’m pursuing it. He’s a great man and needs to be recognized for his service.”