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Pilot, rights pioneer honored at Tuskegee
February 11, 2011
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  • By Alvin Benn

    February 2, 2011

    TUSKEGEE — The title of the program was “Flying Into History,” and it couldn’t have been more appropriate for a woman who refused to allow racism to keep her out of the cockpit.

    Mildred Carter’s dream of becoming a pilot came true 70 years ago, and Tuskegee turned out Tuesday to honor her trailblazing achievement.

    What she wasn’t able to do was earn a spot in the Women’s Air Force Service. The rejection letter to her made it clear. No black women were allowed to join that elite group in 1941.

    So, she did the next best thing — making history by becoming the first licensed black female pilot in Alabama.

    She also fell deeply in love with a young man who “courted” her in the skies over Lake Martin. Aviation would become their second love, and it hasn’t diminished in importance seven decades later.

    The two were honored at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center. This time, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Herbert Carter was the spectator as he gladly provided “equal time” for his wife.

    Her big smile said it all from the moment she was wheeled into the big room to take her place in front of an enlarged photo of herself as a young woman. Then, the fun began.

    Speaker after speaker and resolution after resolution preceded hugs and kisses for her. A large corsage adorned her dress and 70 red roses were brought out later in the program to mark the special occasion.

    Tuesday’s date was significant since Feb. 1, 1941, was when Mildred Carter made aviation history in Alabama.

    It’s possible she might have been one of the first of her race and gender to obtain a license in the region and, possibly, the country, but that might never be known because of shoddy record-keeping.

    There’s no question about her aviation credentials, though. Her license proves that and she keeps it handy for all to see.

    Her surname was Hemmons 70 years ago, and she was a clerk at the Tuskegee Army Airfield where she learned to fly from the legendary Alfred “Chief” Anderson.

    The “Chief” gave first lady Eleanor Roosevelt a ride during her visit to Tuskegee a month after Mildred Hemmons got her license.

    Mildred and Herbert wished for a way to spend some quality time together, but his training as a Tuskegee Airman and her job as a clerk made that difficult.

    So they did the next best thing. She’d take off in a Piper Cub during her free time and putt-putt her way into the wild blue yonder, and he’d take to the skies in an AT-6 trainer.

    Once they met 3,000 feet above the lake, they’d fly in a two-plane formation over Kowaliga, smiling at each other and blowing kisses. Their rendezvous didn’t last long, but it was enough to keep their courtship going.

    Tallapoosa County Commissioner T.C. Coley, who directs the multicultural center, read resolutions from U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, and Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, along with commendations from former Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford as well as local, state and federal officials.

    U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Anniston, used “trailblazer” to describe her and had his salute entered into the Congressional Record.

    Married for 68 years, the Carters are inseparable and are considered Tuskegee’s “First Family.” They go everywhere together, and it was apparent Tuesday that he was enjoying the program as much as she was.

    As they sat together in a room behind where the program was about to begin, they said little, but smiled at each other. It was as though they were back in their planes, soaring through and over puffy white clouds above Lake Martin.

    Tuesday’s celebration was just the latest honor for the couple. They’ve become accustomed to congratulatory messages and invitations to speak across the country and the world.

    If Lt. Col. Carter and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen were pioneers in bringing racial equality to American aviation, Mildred Carter, in her own way, did the same thing for women.

    Roosevelt Lewis, a retired Air Force colonel who helped establish the Tuskegee Airmen Museum, feels Mildred Carter can never be honored too much for what she has accomplished.

    “She was a pioneer in her own right,” he said, referring to that pilot’s license issued to her 70 years ago Tuesday.

    Date: 2011-02-02