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Tuskegee Airmen Were Not Just Pilots

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Submitted by his son, Charles H. Atkinson
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On Father’s Day (6/18/2000), I took two of my children to my father’s grave at Springfield Baptist Church (founded in 1865) in his hometown of Crawfordville, Georgia.  This is where Alexander H. Stephens State Park, which he was never able to visit during his life, is located.  I was trying to give my children a brief history of who he was from my own limited knowledge.  I knew that he was the first black park superintendent in Georgia and had built George Washington Carver State Park, opened in 1950.  It was  the first Negro State Park in the state of Georgia and the only state park ever named for an African-American.  It is now operated by Bartow County as Bartow-Carver Park.  He had leased the land from the Corps of Engineers with the intent of running a private resort like American Beach in Florida.  He could not get a license to operate it as such from Bartow County.  The state, under Governor Eugene Talmadge, made an offer to make the facility a state park for Negroes, due to mounting protest from Black WWII veterans and civic groups. He remained the park superintendent of that facility until he became ill in the fall season of 1958.  The next superintendent was Clarence Benham, father of Justice Robert Benham.  This is the park where Ray Charles and Little Richard visited and performed,  Andrew Young and his family learned to water ski and where Mrs. Coretta Scott-King and her family remember many weekend outings with Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Shortly before WWII, my father had purchased property in the city of Atlanta and built a house on it, only to be barred for two years by the Atlanta police from moving into his house.  He was told by the police that he had built his house on a “white block” and could not move into it.  This was when he was persuaded to join the military.  Later, he filed suit against the city of Atlanta, but that was settled out of court when Mayor William B. Hartsfield sent a car to pick him up and bring him to city hall to tell him in no uncertain terms that if he would drop his suit, the race block system in Atlanta would be abolished.  Also at that meeting, the way was opened for Mozley Park, Dixie Hills, Grove Park, Collier Heights and areas along Bankhead Highway to become Black neighborhoods.

I also remember during 1967, my family was engaged in making plaster ornaments for a large project in Buckhead.  Back in the 1920’s, my father and his older brother, George, were plastering the walls, running cornice and installing ornaments in the Fox Theater during its construction, having mastered plastering from previous work in Florida.  They were the only African-Americans working on the Fox Theater in that capacity.  But, in 1967, the building was a huge house and many African-American plasterers working for Atkinson Brothers Plastering Company, our Uncle Charle’s business, were engaged on that project.  Only later did I learn that it was the new Governor’s mansion.  We were all shocked that the first governor to occupy the mansion  was - ? – Lester G. Maddox.

But what made me write is this – I had learned much about the Army Air Forces when, on April 29, 1997, I introduced Lt. Col. Charles “Chuck” Dryden, USAF (RET.) for his book, “A-Train, Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman” at the Wesley Chapel/William C. Brown DeKalb County Library.  At this time, I went to my father’s grave.  I knew that he had served in the military, but now I saw and recognized all of the writing on his headstone.

John Loyd Atkinson
PFC Army Air Forces
World War II
July 26, 1901 – June 08, 1972

At the first opportunity, I asked my mother why no one told me that my daddy was a Tuskegee Airman.  Her reply, ever succinct, was, “I thought you knew!”

Submitted by Charles H. Atkinson
Decatur, Georgia

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