eldridge_f_williams_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

MIAMI — Guests were supposed to reach into their pockets for money to support a new African-American museum in Washington. Eldridge F. Williams reached into his inner jacket pocket and unfolded his own piece of history.

The paperwork, which Williams has been carrying for the past 70 years, is the official medical exam report that disqualified him for pilot training, a goal he aspired to following his graduation from Xavier University in 1941.

The examining doctor concluded that Williams, then 23, had a “cupping of the optic disc,” a visual impairment often associated with glaucoma. It was an intentional, faulty diagnosis, said Williams, who underwent the physical in Kansas City. Williams pointed to another word the doctor had written next to the diagnosis: “Negro.”

“That’s why I didn’t make it,” Williams said. “That is the kind of discrimination that was in this country. It kept me from becoming a pilot.”

But it did not keep him from teaching others to fly. Following military training in Miami Beach, Williams, a Texas native, became a flight instructor with the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen, the segregated army unit that gave black men a chance to pilot airplanes and fight for their country during World War II. The unit saw action in 1941-46.

“I was the last one to leave the base,” said Williams, now 94 and a resident of Kendall in southwest Miami-Dade County. “I locked the gate on Dec. 12, 1946.”

Williams and fellow Tuskegee Airman Leo Gray were among the South Florida guests Monday night at a fundraiser on Miami’s Brickell Avenue for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The institution is being built to chronicle and showcase the experiences of African Americans in the United States.

The museum, scheduled to open in late 2015, will be located on the National Mall near the Washington Monument. The groundbreaking ceremony, which took place Feb. 22, included President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, former first lady Laura Bush and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who sponsored legislation in 2003 to establish the museum

Congress is appropriating half of the costs for the $500 million project and museum organizers on hand at the Miami reception said another $150 million has been raised. The museum is still in collection mode for another $150 million. In its fundraising outreach, it has asked prominent African-American leaders to help out.

It’s a challenge that South Florida lawyer Albert E. Dotson Jr. and retired Exxon Mobile executive Jesse Tyson said they are eager to take on. The two men are co-chairing the Miami effort to raise at least $1 million. They assembled a host committee that includes former NBA star Alonzo Mourning and brought together about 125 donors and supporters for the official kickoff of a national drive by African Americans. Dotson and Tyson beamed with delight that Miami is the first city to respond to the museum’s call.

“We have benefited from the work of many who preceded us,” Dotson said to about 125 guests gathered at the law offices of Bilzin Sumberg, where Dotson is an equity partner.

Although many attendees were African Americans, the potential donors represented a range of ethnic groups and professions — from church deacons to corporate CEOs. 

“I could not pass up the opportunity to play a role in the museum’s success,” said Dotson, who also serves as national chairman of the 100 Black Men of America.

Tyson met museum officials last summer at his retirement party and gave them a chance to make an appeal for the museum at the party. He repeated the gesture again on Monday.

“We have enough people in this community who have resources and who have benefited from the sacrifices of others,” Tyson said. “We look at these contributions as a small down payment on the debt we owe for the successes we have achieved.”

Anyone wishing to make a financial contribution or donate artifacts to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture should call 202-633-4751 or go to nmaahc.si.edu

Photo: Eldridge F. Williams