'Chief' Anderson: Legendary Tuskegee pilot to be honored with stamp

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is seen in a Piper J-3 Cub trainer with C. Alfred 'Chief' Anderson, a pioneer black aviator and respected instructor at Tuskegee Institute.


By KRISTIN E. HOLMES | Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: February 24, 2014

Long after he piloted a plane that transported first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the skies above the Tuskegee Institute, C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson sometimes sidestepped the limelight.

The aviator, born in Bridgeport, Pa., taught hundreds of Tuskegee Airmen to fly, and he sat appreciatively through the frequent award ceremonies but at times grew weary. He once sent his preteen granddaughters to accept an award while he waited in the car.

So what would the man known as the "Father of Black Aviation" say about the new U.S. Postal Service stamp soon to be issued in his honor?

Something like, "It was the airmen who went over there and fought in the war," said Anderson's granddaughter Christina. Then he would likely lighten the mood with a, "Thank God they used a picture of me in my 30s."

That was the man the Tuskegee Airmen dubbed their "Chief," a leader whose skills and amiable teaching demeanor helped provide the tools for a group of trailblazing military men to go to war.

"He earned his pilot's license at a time when only a small handful of African Americans were able to do that," said J. Todd Moye, author of Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

And in doing so, Anderson, who died in 1996 at 89, was a revered figure among the airmen he taught, said Lynn Homan, co-author of Black Knights: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The stamp honoring Anderson, by artist and illustrator Sterling Hundley, will be presented March 13 at a dedication ceremony at Bryn Mawr College. The event is free and open to the public.

The ceremony will be followed by an evening concert featuring singer Eric Roberson that will raise money for the C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson Legacy Foundation, which aims to raise money for youth scholarships and to preserve Anderson's legacy.

The ceremony will be held in Bryn Mawr because Anderson grew up in the area with his mother, Janie, a domestic worker, and father, Iverson, a coachman and groundskeeper at Miss Wright's School for Girls.

Anderson worked with his father at the school, whose property is now part of the Bryn Mawr College campus, said historian Ted Goldsborough of the Lower Merion Historical Society.

Inspired by looking up

As a boy, Anderson became fascinated with planes.

"Nobody ever came along and said, 'Let me take you for a ride' because nobody around him flew," said Anderson's son, Charles Alfred Anderson Jr., Christina's father and a graduate of George School in Bucks County. "His inspiration was looking up at the sky and seeing airplanes."

Anderson pursued flying after he finished Lower Merion High School, but he couldn't find anyone to teach him. So he borrowed money from family and friends to buy his own plane.

He scraped together $2,200 and bought a Velie Monocoupe and found pilots at the Patco Airport in Norristown who taught him to take off and land. Then he rented the plane to a man who used it to fly to Atlantic City and taught Anderson to fly in the process.

From there, Anderson began setting records. He became the first African American to earn a commercial pilot's license, in 1932. He joined Albert Forsythe to become the first African Americans to make a transcontinental flight, flying from Atlantic City to Los Angeles in 1933.

Seven years later, Anderson landed at Alabama's Tuskegee University as chief instructor for the government's Civilian Pilot Training Program. The school later became the training headquarters for the World War II African American pilots who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Eleanor Roosevelt visited the school in 1941.

"The first thing she said was, 'I always heard colored people couldn't fly airplanes, but I see you're flying all around here,' " Chief Anderson recalled in a video interview.

Roosevelt decided to go up for a spin with Anderson -- defying her security detail. The first lady later wrote about her experience in her syndicated newspaper column.

"It did a lot to destroy the stereotype that African Americans weren't capable," Homan said.

Comical but serious

During his years of teaching at Tuskegee's Moton Field, Anderson and his staff had a hand in training decorated military officers, including Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James, and Col. William "Wild Bill" Campbell Sr.

Tuskegee Airman Roscoe Draper, 94, of Haverford, an Anderson student and later an instructor, described Anderson as "comical but serious." He sometimes pretended to be asleep in the air as a way to monitor his students' skill level and ability to handle the pressure and responsibility of flying.

After the war, Anderson taught flying to anyone who wanted to learn, mostly free of charge. He also operated several laundries with his wife, Gertrude.

"I used to see him flying around [Tuskegee], and people would look up and say, 'There goes the Chief,' " said William Campbell Jr., Col. Campbell's son and an administrative judge for the Postal Service who will preside over the stamp ceremony.

Anderson flew into his 80s; when he contracted colon cancer, he could no longer fly.

In those days, he would ask granddaughter Christina to take him to Moton field and drive onto the tarmac.

"He'd tell me to gun it," said Christina Anderson, who would press her foot hard onto the accelerator.

"He wanted to feel like he was taking off and flying away," she said. "And then I would drive him home."

For information about the stamp ceremony and concert, visit www.chiefanderson.com

Tuskegee pilot C. Alfred 'Chief' Anderson is known as the 'Father of Black Aviation.'


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