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A Tuskegee Airmen memorial’s lone woman

Plus, a PA river otter's significant selfie.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Tanisha Thomas

May 10, 2024

Inside this edition: Cheesy comeback, farm show, otter selfie, on cassette, mission possible, and the women of the Tuskegee Airmen.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.
This Pennsylvania city has been called the smallest in the United States:

A. Bradford, McKean County
B. Hazleton, Luzerne County
C. Parker, Armstrong County
D. St. Marys, Elk County
(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)
Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.
» One name worth knowing: After two years away, Jim Pappas, "Philly’s most prolific cheesesteak taste-tester," is back at it — and just in time for the reopening of Jim's South Street following a 2022 fire.
» One story worth sharing: A Westmoreland County family received the surprise of a lifetime when country music star Luke Bryan called and asked to use their farm to host a concert for 20,000 people.
» One selfie worth seeing: A river otter’s wildlife cam selfie in Chester County has confirmed the animal's presence in Pennsylvania after near extirpation. It's the first Ridley Creek sighting in 100 years.

» One trend worth watching: Cassette tapes brought musician Veronika Cloutier to Pittsburgh, and the city's vinyl scene has kept her there. TribLIVE explains physical media's popularity in the digital age.
» One rescue worth cheering: A York County tree trimmer became a local hero after climbing a 50-foot tree to rescue a cat that even the fire department couldn't reach. ABC27 has video of the skillful save.
🤔 NEXT QUESTION: Are you on top of the news? Prove it with the latest edition of the Great PA News Quiz: High-flying governors, commencement plans, and fizzy water goes to court.
The top stories published by Spotlight PA this week.
» Can $100M fix PA's child care staffing crisis?
» Shapiro takes state plane more than predecessor
» Secretive group paid for Shapiro sports tix
» Penn State offers buyouts in dramatic step
» How PA's voter registration has changed since '08
» One county's unusual opioid windfall spending plan
Men standing at attention in an airfield.
The first Tuskegee Airmen class. (Wikimedia Commons)

When visiting the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial at Sewickley Cemetery in Allegheny County, one name stands out among the dozens listed—that of Rosa Mae Willis Alford.

Alford, of New Brighton in Beaver County, is one in an “often forgotten cadre of women” associated with the World War II squadron of America's first Black military airmen.

Alford was a Mississippi native and skilled technician who attended the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, where the airmen trained. She majored in home economics and worked her way through college by fixing the squadron’s primary training aircraft. 

Alford would move to New Brighton with her husband, a native of Beaver County, after college. She went on to become the first Black home economics teacher at New Brighton High School in the 1950s. After receiving her master’s degree from Michigan State, she was hired as the first Black guidance counselor at Beaver Falls High School in the 1960s. 

Regis Bobonis Sr. — a historian, researcher, and Pittsburgh’s first Black TV news reporter — spoke with the Beaver County Times in 2015, one year before his death, recalling the first time he learned of Alford in a casual conversation with a relative.

“The family member was where I was doing research and he said, 'You know there’s a woman,'” Bobonis told the paper.

Alford died in 2011, her remarkable life recounted in this obituary. Two years later, the airmen memorial bearing her name was dedicated in Sewickley. She is the only woman listed. 

Nearly 1 in 10 Tuskegee Airmen called Western Pennsylvania home. Pilots also hailed from Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs.

Asked to explain the Pittsburgh area’s disproportionate share, Samuel Black, director of the African American program at the Heinz History Center, said, “Nobody really knows why."

The U.S. military was segregated, and many aspiring Black pilots were being denied the opportunity to fly. Under pressure in 1940, several years before the outbreak of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Department established a flight program at historically Black colleges. They included the Tuskegee Institute, where a civilian pilot training program had launched years prior under the direction of a Bryn Mawr native named Charles Alfred Anderson, “the father of Black aviation.”

“There was already this consciousness on the part of African Americans in relation to the military and the role African Americans played in the 20th-century U.S. Army,” Black said. “The door was already open for African Americans to have different roles.”

Although white pilots were not allowed to fly more than 52 missions, the Tuskegee Airmen often flew up to 100 missions due to a lack of replacements, according to a Pitt-funded documentary: "Fly Boys: Western Pennsylvania's Tuskegee Airmen."

By the end of World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen had racked up thousands of combat stories, missions, medals, and commendations. But that didn’t guarantee acceptance. 

Elaine Effort’s father, the late Sgt. Vernol Leapheart, was crew chief for then-Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.

“They had a lot of racist comments about Blacks and their abilities,” Effort, a retired Pittsburgh news reporter, told PA Local. “They said, ‘We don't believe Blacks will stay and fight.’ The Tuskegee Airmen trained and trained, and they weren’t using them in action.”

Effort continued: “Finally Eleanor Roosevelt came down to Tuskegee. She made a point by getting in a plane. Word came from the White House that someone told them not to let her do it. She went up anyway. The assistant later said, ‘Have you ever tried to tell Elenor Roosevelt what to do?’”

In 2010, Bobonis discovered several men from Pittsburgh had been Tuskegee Airmen. He began to organize a memorial soon after.

“The more they looked into it the more they thought, ‘Oh wow, we really should do something to honor these guys,’” said Effort, who was part of the planning. “It seemed like it came together quickly. Once we started working on this, the pieces started falling into place.”

It is the largest outdoor Tuskegee Airmen memorial in the country. Another memorial is displayed in Concourse A of the Pittsburgh International Airport. 

Some Tuskegee Airmen are still alive, carrying on the legacy

“It is such a brilliant story. They faced all kinds of racial prejudice but they showed them what Black men and women could do,” Effort added.

Tanisha Thomas, newsletter writer

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A quote from a Pennsylvanian that we found interesting this week.
 “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” 

A quote unofficially attributed to Anna Jarvis, the Philly woman behind the creation of Mother’s Day who wound up despising its commercialization
Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
On the grounds of Pennsylvania State Capitol, via Elsie V. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on IG, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.
Statues of top-hatted figures in the bronze monument to Harrisburg's African-American historical denizens.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The answer is "C. Parker, Armstrong County."

In the 2020 census, 695 people lived in Parker, which was officially declared a city during an oil boom in 1873 that grew the local population to 20,000. Another 5,000 lived in boats on the Allegheny River there.

By 1878, the wells were running dry and the city's population began to shrink. The number of residents eventually fell to 1,000, but the city designation stuck, earning it the "smallest in the U.S." title.

Thanks for reading. We'll see you back here next week.

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