Detroiters mourn the loss of Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson

Mackenzie Thompson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mourners gathered Thursday to honor the life of a late Tuskegee Airman at the Charles. H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Alexander Jefferson, a former lieutenant colonel in the vaunted U.S. Army Air Corps group, died June 22 at the age of 100. He was one of the first African Americans to serve as a P-51 fighter pilot with the Red Tail, 332nd Fighter Group, 301st Fighter Squadron in Ramitelli, Italy, during WWII.

Viewers passed by as he lie in repose Thursday in the rotunda of the museum.

Eleanor Millben Hill, left, and her sister, Janet Millben Burch, pay their respects to Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson to lie in repose at the Wright Museum’s rotunda. Jefferson, a WWII hero who was 100 years old, died on June 22.

Jefferson, a lifelong Detroiter, reported to Tuskegee Army Air Field to begin flight training in 1943.

Jefferson was captured during his 19th mission by German troops and held for eight months from 1944-45.

He retired from active duty in 1947 and from the reserves in 1969. He was a teacher and school principal for decades in Detroit.

In the early 1970s, Jefferson founded the Detroit Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen in his basement. Miguel Thornton, a member, said: "The legacy is to keep the dream of the Tuskegee Airmen alive, introduce youth to aviation and aerospace."

Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson in a vintage photograph.

The Tuskegee Airmen have been the subject of books, movies and documentaries highlighting their courage in the air and the doubts they faced on the ground because of their race, according to the Associated Press.

Members of the chapter on Thursday, dressed in blue and black suits, saluted the former airman. 

Jefferson was honored by the city of Detroit in 2021 and given a key to the city on his 100th birthday. The city also rededicated Jefferson Plaza at Rouge Park, named after him and where he spent time as a child flying model airplanes.  

“He was a young man who grew up as a boy on the west side and flew model airplanes at Rouge Park because he knew he wanted to grow up to be a pilot," said Rochelle Riley, director of arts and culture for the city. “This is a vital part of Detroit’s culture and history, and American history, and every child should learn it.”