Leroy Bowman’s journey to becoming one of the military’s first African-American pilots began in 1941, when he joined the U.S. Army.
“I joined the original class of Tuskegee Airmen, known as the Tuskegee Experience, during my first term in ’41,” said Bowman, a Sumter native. “The program was designed for us to fail. They had no intentions of us succeeding.”
Of the 3,000 men who started the course, only 1,000 graduated, including Bowman. Bowman went on to fly 36 combat missions against the German Luftwaffe, escorting U.S. bombers to and from targets.
Today, the 90-year-old Bowman is one of 13 African-Americans with S.C. ties who will be honored in the 24th annual S.C. African-American history calendar. The 2013 group of honorees includes doctors, educators, a poet, politicians and artists. The calendar, sponsored by AT&T South Carolina, originally was created as a teaching tool for the state Department of Education but has evolved into an African-American history hall of fame.
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After the war, Bowman graduated from college and accepted a job as a teacher, leading to stints as a principal and administrator.
“I didn’t really have my heart in it, so I decided it would be better for me to do something else,” Bowman said. “I went back into the military just before the start of the Korean War. After both periods in the military, I ended up serving close to 23 years.”
In 2007, Bowman was among 300 original Tuskegee Airmen who received the Congressional Gold Medal Award, given by President George W. Bush.
“When we received notice of the award, we were elated but not excited. It wasn’t until after we met and discussed it that we decided we had to attend,” Bowman said. “It was an honor they were giving to us as representatives of what had been done before, which was the exciting part.”
In addition to Bowman, the 2013 calendar honorees are: state Sen. Ralph Anderson of Greenville; opera singer Gwendolyn Bradley of New York; mother and son chair caners Marie Bailey and Willie Van Bailey of Orangeburg; Dr. William H. Carson of New Jersey, psychiatrist and CEO of Osaka Pharmaceutical Development and Commercialization; poet Nikky Finney of Lexington, Ky.; health-care executive and Richland 1 school board member Vince Ford of Columbia; Des Moines University president Dr. Angela L. Walker Franklin, a native of McCormick; former Clemson and NFL football player Lorenzo Levon Kirkland of Greenville; painter, sculptor and printmaker Otto Neals of New York; educator Luther Seabrook of Charleston; and Command Sgt. Maj. Gail M. Williams of Elgin.
The 2013 African-American History Calendar will launch online tonight at scafricanamerican.com. Copies of the calendar also will be available at ETV, the state Education Department, the State Media Co., the University of South Carolina and WIS.