Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Leon Crayton described himself as a later-generation airman who joined the Tuskegee Chapter in 2004. He first heard of the famed fliers during his freshman year at what was then Tuskegee Institute, decades before Hollywood made the movie about them.
Hillsboro man's dedication
Crayton served country in civil
service and Air Force Reserve
The tall man rose to applause after master of ceremonies Madison Brown introduced him as “the fifth Tuskegee Airman.”
Many at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast last month wondered why Leon Crayton hadn’t joined the quartet of Atlanta Chapter Tuskegee Airmen at the head table, black pilots who became famous flying escorts for American bombers during World War II.
Afterward at his Hillsboro home, Crayton, who’ll be 73 on Sunday, described himself as a later generation airman who joined the Tuskegee Chapter in 2004. He first heard of the famed fliers during his freshman year at then Tuskegee Institute, decades before Hollywood made the movie about them, grounding them in America’s consciousness.
“A required class was a history of the university. Part of it was the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, who trained there,” said Crayton, who had enrolled in Air Force ROTC.
He revealed an early drive to make something of himself, not unlike the spirit the original Airmen expressed in fighting for space in the wild blue yonder in their red-tailed P-51 Mustangs.
While a sophomore at Decatur Negro High School, he got an early morning job as a janitor at a finance company. Principal Leon Sheffield gave him permission to arrive at school each day an hour late. Crayton became the only member among the 14 students in his 1953 graduating class to attend college. He received a scholarship to Tuskegee from the Thursday Thimble Club.
He hoped to earn a degree in secondary education because “I always wanted to be a teacher.” But after a year, funds ran out and he was unable to continue his studies. He decided in 1955 to join the Air Force for “some meaningful experience” and to earn enough money to return to school.
His first-ever airplane ride took him from Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
“We had a hard-nosed sergeant,” he said, “and after we stepped off that plane, he started our disciplinary training. ‘You have basically three things to say,’ he began. ‘Yes sir, no sir and no excuse sir.’ My ROTC training at Tuskegee had prepared me.”
When his four-year hitch ended, Crayton completed a course at Detroit Institute of Commerce. Unsuccessful in landing a job, he became discouraged.
Before returning home with the intention of getting back in school at Tuskegee, he listened to an uncle who suggested he take the civil service exam.
He qualified for a future vacancy at Selfridge Air Force Base, 30 miles north of Detroit.
A week after arriving in Decatur, a telegram brought good news: Selfridge was considering him for a position. His beloved “Uncle” Cleve (Cleveland Jarman Sr.), who is now 86 and still living in Decatur, gave him train fare back to Detroit for an interview.
He got the choice of two jobs with 24 hours to decide. He took a position with the 305th Aerospace and Rescue Squadron.
He spent his entire 28-year career at Selfridge and retired in March 1989 as the highest graded black employee in the Central Civilian Personnel Office at grade GS-12.
Also, during his career as a civil service employee, Crayton qualified to serve in the Air Force Reserve, where he spent 21 years before retiring as master sergeant.
After raising their three sons in Detroit, he and his wife, Joan, moved to Hillsboro in 1990. He later served a term on the Hillsboro Town Council.
As he continues to enhance the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, he often thinks about historical benchmarks woven into his life. The year he joined the Air Force, a Tuskegee native, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus, launching the civil rights movement into prominence. She later moved to Detroit, where she and the Craytons became close friends.
“Joan and I were at a Federal Women’s Luncheon at Cobo Hall in 1985. A member of the Detroit Federal Executive Board, sponsor of the event, asked us to drive Mrs. Parks home,” Crayton said. “She had a dozen roses they had presented her, and when we got home, we noticed one had dropped off on the seat. When we called her, she said, ‘You to keep it.’ Joan preserved that rose for as long as she could.”
Each Mother’s Day through 1990, Parks was a dinner guest in the Crayton’s Detroit home. In 1991, she and her administrative assistant, on a business trip to Birmingham, came to Hillsboro for a three-day visit.
“I recall her as a very humble, compassionate person,” Crayton said. “She didn’t care for a lot of publicity. She just wanted a quiet, friendly place. We felt she was part of our family.”
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