NewsBlack History Month


100-year-old Colorado man reflects on barrier-breaking career as Tuskegee airman

Colonel James Harvey III.jpg
Posted at 4:45 PM, Feb 22, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-22 19:40:18-05

LAKEWOOD, Colo. — At 100 years old, Colonel James Harvey III is taking time to reflect on the moments that led him to his destiny — flying.

“I was born in Montclair, New Jersey, on July 13, 1923,” Harvey said. “I grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania, or in northeastern Pennsylvania — town called Nuangola Station.”

 Harvey said his family was the only family of color in town.

“It was great. I was treated like a normal human being — no name-calling and all that kind of stuff,” Harvey said.

He wasn’t sure what he wanted to be when he grew up until he received a sign in the sky one day.

“I heard noise above, looked up. There were fighter P-40s flying in formation. And I said, ‘I'd like to do that one day,'” Harvey said. “I tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps. They said no. General Arnold did not want the people of color in his white Air Force.”

Harvey instead enlisted in the United States Army and became a pilot.

“I was 17… I had to go to flying school, and the only place for us to go was Tuskegee, Alabama,” Harvey said.

The trip to Alabama would expose Harvey to something he had never experienced before — discrimination.

“It started before Tuskegee. It started when I got off the train when I left home and arrived in Washington, DC.,” Harvey said. “The train was early, so I went and got me some breakfast. Came back, went to get on the car, then there was a conductor who says, 'No, no, no, no. Get your stuff. And we're gonna put you in this car where negroes ride. Welcome to the South.'”

Harvey said more discrimination greeted him when he arrived in Tuskegee.

“Tuskegee wasn't a good place for us as a race of people. The sheriff there made it be known, ‘You come back here and you won’t leave in a vertical position,'” Harvey said.

Despite the challenges, Harvey and the soon-to-be Tuskegee Airmen got right to work.

“We had a good makeup. We were all anxious to start flying. That’s all we talked about, flying,” Harvey said. “It was different, something I never experienced before — an open cockpit airplane. All this noise. That's one of the reasons I can't hear today. It ruined my hearing.”

Harvey and his fellow pilots would go on to make history, becoming the first Black pilots in the United States Armed Forces. But once boot camp was over, the pilots would spend decades working to prove themselves.

“We knew we were better than what they said we were. We were just normal, just like anybody else. But they didn't see us that way. They saw us as a bunch of clowns,” Harvey said.

In 1949, the Tuskegee Airmen won the Air Force’s inaugural Top Gun team competition. However, the winners would not receive public recognition for their victory until 2022.

“They refused to believe we won,” Harvey said.

Harvey did not see combat in World War II but fought during the Korean War. His wife and daughters lived in Japan while Harvey carried out missions in Korea.

“I was just there long enough to get 126 missions… in 89 days,” Harvey said.

Harvey said pilots would eventually only be required to fly 100 missions after he was well past the marker.

In the 1960s, Harvey retired from the service and made his way to Colorado, eventually settling down in Lakewood.

“I always wanted to come here…the weather, can’t be the weather and the scenery,” Harvey said.

Harvey said when he thinks about the Tuskegee Airmen, the word “excellence” comes to mind.

“We were the best. We were the best,” Harvey said.

And when Harvey reflects on what they endured to be the best, he shares this advice for future generations.

“My motto has always been do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And treat everyone with respect. If you do that, life is going to be great for you. And don't take any crap,” Harvey said.

100-year-old Colorado man reflects on barrier-breaking career as Tuskegee airman

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