The Deacon's Bench

A reader sent this my way: the surprising, largely untold story of a special guest at the Obama inaugural:

Among the millions who braved the cold to watch as President Barack Obama made history by becoming this nation’s first African-American president, was a Catholic deacon who made history himself some 60 years ago.

Deacon Walt Richardson, who will turn 80 in February, was a special guest at the new president’s inauguration, because he was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

“I think of the awesome responsibility he is accepting,” Deacon Richardson said of the new president. “I fee a sense of pride for our country and for him. What brings joy to me is the opportunity to live this moment, to see the inauguration of this president.”

Deacon Richardson – a friend of Washington Auxiliary Bishop Martin Holley who knew the prelate when he was a priest at St. Mary’s Parish in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. – traveled to Washington for the inauguration along with his wife of 56 years, Helen.

The Tuskegee Airmen were African-American men who joined the service during World War II, at a time of racial segregation in society and the military. The men had to fight discrimination in order to fight for their country.

The aviation cadets were trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama in a variety of disciplines, including single- and twin-engine aviation, navigation, meteorology, operational intelligence, medicine, aircraft mechanics, radio repair, parachute rigging, and other jobs required by the squadron.

Members of the group fought with distinction during the war, but faced discrimination when they returned home.

Deacon Richardson served with the Tuskegee Airmen not as an aviator or mechanic, but as an entertainer.

“I was part of ‘Operation Happiness,'” Deacon Richardson said. “I was a singer, and we were the first all-military troupe to entertain at Air Force bases.”

After a year with the Tuskegee Airmen, Deacon Richardson was transferred to an all-white unit. There, he said, he faced racism and had to “re-adjust in order to fit in.” He said that with the Tuskegee Airmen, he did not have to worry about such matters as from which water fountain he was allowed to drink.

Deacon Richardson, who converted to Catholicism in 1957, recalled encountering racism during a 1958 trip he made cross-country when he was transferred from Eglin Air Base in Florida to Okinawa, Japan. As he was driving to the West Coast for deployment, he had trouble finding motels and hotels that would accept black customers.

“My first reaction was to turn to my faith. Whenever I came to a town (to spend the night), I stopped at a Catholic church to ask the priest to recommend a place to stay that would accept my family and me,” he said. “The priests would always find me a place.”

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