MONTICELLO (AP) — Retired Tuskegee Airman Johnny C. Whitfield of Monticello received a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal Friday.
U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., made the presentation during a ceremony at the Lawrence County Courthouse.
"During a time when our nation was divided by racial segregation, these brave pilots overcame enormous prejudice and discrimination to defend our independence," Harper said in a news release. "Their perseverance taught Americans that skin color does not impede an airmen's ability to fight for freedom, and their determination led to the integration of our military."
The Congressional Gold Medal has been given selectively since 1776, when George Washington was awarded the first. It is awarded to people who perform an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity and national interest of the country.
Congress voted in 2006 to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of black fighter pilots. The airmen received the medal collectively during a 2007 ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. A historian for the group says about 300 of the estimated 16,000 to 19,000 members of the group attended the ceremony. Since then, members of the U.S. House and Senate have presented bronze replicas to dozens of airmen, including many who were unable to attend the 2007 ceremony. The group's original gold medal remains in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Almost 1,000 pilots trained as a segregated Army Air Corps unit in Tuskegee, Ala., during World War II.
Whitfield, now 90, served in the military from 1942 to 1965 as a flight engineer on a C-47. During World War II, his unit, the 301st Fighter Squadron, fought in Italy for two years.
Whitfield retired as a senior master sergeant and went on to a civilian career with Trans World Airlines. He said he lived in Sacramento, Calif., for 26 years before retiring to Mississippi to live on land his mother had owned.
He said in a telephone interview Friday that he rarely discusses his military service. He said one reason he entered the military was because many of his classmates were serving.
"There was the discipline that you had to get adjusted to," Whitfield said. "Once you got it, it wasn't bad."