Two decades before Martin Luther King, Jr. led the freedom march in Selma, Alabama to bring awareness to civil rights and the difficulties faced by black voters in the south, the Tuskegee Airmen were paving the way for the eventual end of segregation. Original Tuskegee Airman Nicholas Neblett, like other Airmen that served with the country’s first black pilots and their support personnel, played a role in the movement towards racial justice and today we honor his life and legacy.
Neblett was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he continued to make his home until his passing. When he was drafted into the service during WWII, he entered the flying corps where he eventually earned the unique triple rating of pilot, navigator and bombardier. He was stationed at Midland Army Airfield in Texas, where at that time black pilots were not allowed to land on the main airstrip, but had to find a place to set their aircraft down safely in adjacent crop fields. And like many black service members of that era, Neblett experienced other frustrations of segregation, including being excluded from the officers club. It was an unwelcome lesson in perseverance and patience that people of color where forced to take.
Although Neblett did not deploy overseas, he played a vital role in servicing aircraft stateside. After his service to the US Army Air Corp ended, he went on to have an illustrious career with GE Aviation for 33 years, utilizing his expertise and passion for aviation to test jet engines for the worldwide company.
Nicholas Neblett, Jr., the second youngest of Neblett’s seven children, says his father was a strong, independent man – even into his 90s – that had a solid work ethic and dedication to his family values.
On the occasion that Neblett would speak about his experiences during the war, his family remembers that he would let others speak to the heroics of their experiences, while Neblett felt compelled to speak honestly about the difficult realities faced by black service members. He might have not been the most vocal, but he had the courage to discuss these issues even though they might not be the most popular.
When asked about his father and his history with the Tuskegee Airmen, Neblett, Jr. replies, “My father inspired all of us by his lifestyle and what he meant to our family. We knew that his experience in the segregated military, even as a Tuskegee Airman, only served to make him stronger. He used that to deal with life outside the service, even though racial difficulties extended for decades.”
Neblett’s family knew that his service as a Tuskegee Airman was unique, but unfortunately it took the history books decades to catch up, and the Airmen themselves had to prove themselves to be top-notch bomber escorts before anyone took notice.
“I was born 12 years after my father’s service to our country, and I remember playing in his old uniforms and not realizing the significance of it because I was so young,” recalls Neblett, Jr. “When I was older and in school learning about the civil rights movement, it occurred to me how important my dad was as a Tuskegee Airman. In fact, because the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen never came up in my history classes, I tried to bring in some of his squadron patches and hats, but the teacher would not allow the discussion. It’s taken a lifetime for people to understand and honor the significance of this group of trailblazers.”
Neblett passed away on November 26, 2014 at the age of 93. He was a longtime member of the Cincinnati chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. serving in leadership roles and attending annual conferences. He is an example of strength and integrity that his family has grown from for three generations. Today we salute Nicholas Neblett for fighting for our country and freedom from oppression, both abroad and at home.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at www.redtail.org.