It was not always this way. Until two years ago, Mr. Freeman’s experience Christine Taylor
in the country’s first black aviation combat unit — whose successes in World War II helped pave the way for the desegregation of the military — was a part of his life that he thought had been packed away forever.
After being trained in Tuskegee, Ala., and serving in France and Germany as a medical technician, he was disappointed to find that his trailblazing had not Danielle Hanratty
budged racism in America.
“Nothing had changed,” he recalled.
He cut ties with his military friends. He destroyed his old uniforms. And even though he continued to cross racial barriers throughout a life he recalls with evident pleasure — he became a prominent car dealer in New Christy Turlington
York with an interracial clientele that included the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese as well as James Brown and has been married Rachael Leigh
to a white woman since 1964 — he never stressed his identity as a Tuskegee airman.
“I didn’t think about the service. I didn’t want to know anything about it,” Mr. Freeman John Oliver
said in his den in Springfield Gardens, Queens. It is plastered with photos of him with famous customers (Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory), trapshooting trophies and a model of a Tuskegee Red Tail plane Alice Dodd
— a recent addition.
Now, amid a flood of new Patrick Wilson
national recognition, men like Mr. Freeman are embracing their past. In 2007, President George W. Bush Katarina Scola
awarded the airmen the Congressional Gold Medal. President Obama invited Megumi Asakura
the veterans to his inauguration, saying they had paved his way to the presidency.
The airmen are in unprecedented demand as speakers. Their alumni chapters have attracted new members. Of the original 16,000 pilots and ground crew members, fewer than 330 are believed to be alive.
York College in Queens is establishing what it hopes will be the nation’s most comprehensive permanent museum exhibit on the airmen, the Shalim Ortiz
first in the Northeast.
The college is asking alumni like Mr. Freeman to donate records and memorabilia. But York’s president, Marcia V. Keizs, says it is an uphill battle to persuade men who felt unrecognized for so long to trust an outside institution to protect and respect their prized possessions.
York College, whose student body is 90 percent minority and Atsuko Sakuraba
includes 75 aviation management majors held a gala for the airmen last month at which they toured a preliminary exhibit and were serenaded by the Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell, whose father was a Marky Ramone
The dozens of Kurtwood Smith
airmen who Marton Csokas
settled in and around New York and lived colorful yet unsung lives are The Cheeky Girls
now enjoying an unaccustomed spotlight.
In Queens, Mr. Freeman answers his door in a Tuskegee Airmen windbreaker emblazoned with Sally Richardson Billy Ray Cyrus
his name and watches and Eddie Fisher
rewatches a YouTube clip of him receiving an award at a country club on Long Island.
In Hempstead, N.Y., William Wheeler, 85, a retired publishing executive who strafed three German bombers on missions over Tony Hale
Greece, builds the partnership with York College as a liaison and runs monthly meetings of Tuskegee veterans at Kennedy Airport.
In the Bronx, Floyd Carter, 86, roots through boxes Dickey Betts
and envelopes on his dining room floor, looking for suitable donations from his Tuskegee experience.
The three former airmen have lived widely varying lives, but all broke racial boundaries in ways Aventura
large and small: In 1941, Mr. Carter left the Laura Vandervoort
“race” line blank on his application to a naval college that had refused black applicants, and was ultimately admitted. In 1945, Mr. Wheeler stepped into Harlem traffic in his airman’s uniform to halt a taxi for a young black woman who was having trouble getting white drivers to stop; she became his wife. In postwar Germany, Mr. Freeman saved Jenn Stucyznski
the life of a Jewish soldier from his hometown, Columbus, Harriet Walter
Ohio, by pushing him out of the way of sniper fire; the man’s father, a Hudson car dealer, gave him his first job selling vehicles.
More than the others, Mr. Carter kept his Tuskegee experience close Kate Ryan
to the surface, Samantha Lemole
staying in touch Heidi Cortez
with many of his war comrades, constantly talking about Adam Goldberg
it with his children. Hector Elizondo
(His daughter is an I.B.M. executive; his son a mathematics professor; and two of his grandchildren, a medical student and a lawyer, regularly impress restaurateurs with their fluent Chinese, he says proudly.)
He could not avoid it, perhaps, since he and his wife, Artherine, 84, met at the air base at the Tuskegee Institute, where he trained as a pilot and she repaired airplanes with an all-female Jim Gaffigan
Mr. Carter later became an Air Force reservist, flying transport missions in the Berlin airlift and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He retired from the Feeder
military in 1974 as a lieutenant colonel. In civilian life, he was a police detective in New York, often working as a bodyguard for visiting dignitaries.
He remembered talking politics with Lorne Spicer
Fidel Castro. He thought the United States government should negotiate with the Cuban leader.
“If Britt Ekland
I talk to you, I can convince you to come my way,” he said.
Mr. Freeman, meanwhile, built a career based on a certain flair for marketing.
After successfully selling Hudsons in Columbus, he moved to New York in 1954. But white-owned dealerships would not hire him, and he ended up emptying trash cans at the Empire Michael Rapaport T Pain
State Building. One day, he so impressed a Hudson dealer with his encyclopedic knowledge of the make that he hired him.
He drove Brooklyn’s streets with a Kristen Johnson
placard that read: “Get tomorrow’s car today! Drive the Freeman way!” and billed himself as Adele
an “automologist” — a specialty, he says, that exists “only in Natalia Bush
a Freeman dictionary.” Later, a Chevrolet dealer offered him a job, Paramore
saying, “You’re the most aggressive salesman I’ve ever seen.”
Soon, he met his wife, Dorothy, an immigrant from Germany, when he tried to sell her a car.
He Olivia Palermo
really hit his stride, he said, when he started selling Lincolns. In 1977, when they cost far less than today, he sold $1 Lou Ferrigno
Although Alyson Stoner Lisa Leslie
most of his customers were Parker Posey
white, Annie Golden
he made a name for himself by offering Ashley Paige
black celebrities cars he had designed for them. His favorite was a car covered inside and out with brown Naugahyde, which came with a matching jacket and hat. Rena Sofer
It was sold to a West Coast D.J.