Martin C. Evans

Spann Watson, Tuskegee Airman, Dead at 93

In Uncategorized on April 16, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Spann Watson August 14, 1916 - April 15, 2010

Services  for Spann Watson, who helped break the color bar in the military as one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, then used his position as an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration to agitate for integration among commercial airline crews, are being planned for this week on Long Island, and later at Arlington, Va.

Watson, an affable but determined man who lived in Westbury, NY, died April 15 of complications of pneumonia at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola. He was 93.

“He was unwavering in discipline and unwavering in love,” the youngest of his five children, Weyman Watson, of South Orange N.J., told Newsday. “You got both, whether you wanted it or not.”

A South Carolina native, whose family moved to New Jersey after a neighbor was lynched when he was 10, Watson’s path to a military cockpit was a difficult one.

He had earned a pilots license in the late 1930s while studying mechanical engineering at Howard University. That meant with war raging in Europe, he was one of only a few thousand Americans who knew how to fly.

But in 1940 an Army recruiter at Long Island’s Mitchel Field rejected him, saying, correctly, that the Army didn’t allow black pilots.

In a Newsday interview on his 90th birthday, Watson said he got back into his mother’s Buick Special and drove to his New Jersey home with the radio dialed to “The Make Believe Ballroom,” a popular dance music program.

“I cursed all the way to the Triborough Bridge, listening to Benny Goodman do ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ ” said Watson, who still had the Army’s rejection letter. “And I promised I would never give up.”

Things turned in his favor the next year, when pressure by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People forced the War Department to set up an Army program that opened pilot training to black men.

Watson was in the fourth class of cadets in the program based at Tuskegee Army Air Field – only a dozen other Tuskegee pilots had their wings before his cadet class graduated in July, 1942 – and he went on to fly combat missions over North Africa and Europe.

While at Tuskegee, he met Edna Webster, a civilian employee at the airfield, and they were married on Dec. 17, 1943.

Watson often said it was an administrative snafu that led to his early return to the United States, setting in motion his role as an organizer of the Tuskegee Airmen. With his wartime service in Europe over, Watson helped to train other black Army pilots at Tuskegee and at Walterboro, S.C.

Doing so, he became familiar with almost all of the roughly 1,000 pilots who graduated from the Tuskegee program – highly trained fliers who after the war were barred by racial discrimination from getting jobs in the commercial airline industry.

On April 6, 1945, 10 years before Rosa Parks sparked the Birmingham bus boycott, Watson was one of 58 black pilots voluntarily arrested for entering a “whites only” officers club at an Army base in Indiana. The incident, known as the Freeman Field Mutiny is credited with hastening the end of segregation in the military.

Watson said when he retired from the military in 1965 to become an affirmative action specialist for the FAA, he made the integration of commercial cockpits a priority.

In the past two decades he crisscrossed the country for speaking engagements and air-show visits to bring the all-black flight program – which had been virtually ignored by history – into the American consciousness. In 1997, Congress honored graduates of the Tuskegee program with the Congressional Gold Medal – the nation’s highest civilian award.

For his 90th birthday celebration, several black airline employees traveled from as far away as Denver to attend, saying without his advocacy, their careers might never have gotten off the ground.

Watson, who at 92 traveled to Washington to attend an inaugural ball hosted by President Barack Obama, said his helping pave the way for others was among his life’s most satisfying accomplishments.

“I’ve done so much I’m proud of,” Watson said. “That’s the real reward.”

In addition to his wife and son, Watson is survived by another son, Spann Marlowe Watson, of Silver Spring, Md., and daughters Cynthia Hopson, of Bratenahl, Ohio and Dianne Capers, of Hempstead. Another son, Capt. Orrin Watson, an Air Force flier, died in 1981.

A burial is being planned for Arlington National Cemetery following a funeral at the adjacent Old Post Chapel, in Virginia, but no date has been set. Viewings this week will be held on Long Island at Donohue-Cecere Funeral Home, 290 Post Ave., Westbury. Times are 7-9 p.m. Tuesday, April 20, and 2-4 p.m Wednesday. A brief ceremony will be held 7-9 p.m. Wednesday.

  1. Blessed are those who there to make a difference.
    Rest in peace.

  2. **CORRECTION to above comment**
    I meant:
    “Blessed are those who dare to make a difference.”

  3. Thank you for your courage and tenacity. Rest in Peace, you earned your wings a long time ago.

  4. I worked with Spann Watson for several years in the late’80’s. We both were FAA employees and I had the pleasure of sharing a double cubicle with him in FAA HQ. I heard all his stories during those two years, including the Freeman Field Mutiny. I’m sorry to hear of his passing.

  5. Really awesome article! Really!

  6. I was saddened at the passing of Colonel Spann Watson. I learned from a former classmate, Sandra Watson, formerly Sandra Wood that after a discussion with her former spouse that we might have the same relatives in South Carolina. I am a Watson with family ties in South Carolina. My father James Watson Served in North Africa during WWII with the Army-Air Corps’ Engineers, building runways. I would be honored if a family member could contact me in that we might discuss what I’ve recently learned. Respectfully.

  7. I worked with Spann Watson at the FAA in l977-1978. At that time I did not know about the Tuskegee airmen. I knew him then as a wonderful, gentle person who was interested in helping young people. Like a father figure. He kept in touch with us and we helped work on a Tuskegee matter with him. He took us to Andrews for lunch and called to see if we were OK over the years. He travelled the Long Island Railroad and Amtrak and DC subway to DC to visit a friend who was very ill in the hospital and returned the same way without spending the night. He was a true friend. I will be attending his funeral at Arlington tomorrow and know that we have a lost a courageous, honest and beautiful person.

    My heart goes out to his family because if he made such an imperssion on me, it must have been very special to be part of his family.

    Rose Marie
    July 28, 2010

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