Tuskegee Airmen, Pitt Football Star Bobby Grier Attending Barack Obama’s Inauguration

Issue Date: 
January 20, 2009


Wendell Freeland and Robert Higginbotham have traveled a long road from their days as Tuskegee Airmen in World War II to today, when they will witness the inauguration of Barack Obama as the United States’ first African American president.

The two airmen, along with Bobby Grier (BUS ’57), a Pitt running back who in 1956 was the first African American to play in a Sugar Bowl, are among the civil rights trailblazers with ties to Pitt who will be joining the throngs of Obama well-wishers in Washington, D.C.

In December, U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat and head of the congressional inaugural committee, invited the nation’s Tuskegee Airmen to join the inaugural celebration. The airmen were an elite corps of African American pilots who distinguished themselves as the finest escort plane service in the U.S. military during World War II. Between 1941 and 1946, more than 2,000 Blacks completed training at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, in Alabama. An estimated 330 airmen are still living.

“I feel just wonderful” about the invitation, said Robert Higginbotham (MED ’57), a Sewickley native who now lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif. A retired orthopedic surgeon, Higginbotham said, “I am very proud and honored that a Black American has been elected to the U.S. presidency, especially at this time of turmoil. I think Mr. Obama is very capable, and he will lead us out of the difficult economic and global situations we are in.”

Higginbotham’s brother, Mitchell, is also a Tuskegee Airman but will not be attending the inauguration. “Quite a few of us are not going because we’re all more than 80. I’m one of the younger ones, and I’m 82,” Robert Higginbotham said.

Wendell Freeland, 83, a former Pitt Trustee and a member of the School of Social Work Board of visitors, is a leading Pittsburgh attorney and civil rights activist. He is traveling to D.C. with his daughter, Lisa, as well as fellow Tuskegee Airman William Hicks, 87, of Homewood. They are staying with friends in the D.C. area.

“As far as I know now, we will meet other Tuskegee Airmen from across the country at Bolling Air Force Base” in Southwestern Washington, D.C., at 7 a.m. Jan. 20, Freeland said. “Then we will be transported by bus to the capital,” he added.

The airmen have each been allotted two tickets, which will give them access to coveted seating close to the podium for the swearing-in ceremony.

Grier, meanwhile, will be attending the The Ancestors Dream Presidential Ball, hosted by the Prince George (Md.) County Presidential Inaugural Committee. The event will be held at the Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor, Md.

Grier, a retired Community College of Allegheny County administrator who lives in Wexford, and his wife, Dorothy (EDUC ’59, ’80G, ’89G), were invited as “VIP guests” of Terry L. Speigner, chair of Prince George County’s inaugural committee. The Griers’ daughter, Cassandra, works for a radio station in the D.C. area, and when Speigner learned that Cassandra’s father was the famed Bobby Grier, Speigner mailed the Griers an invitation.

So with tickets in hand—and travel arrangements made—the three men will participate in the inaugural festivities for President Obama. And the rest, as the saying goes, will be history.