Leslie Edwards didn’t talk about his military career during his daughter’s childhood — or her adulthood, for that matter. Imogene Bowers was 50 years old when she learned that her small, slight father had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military aviators in United States history.
“He did not allow any of the focus to be on him,” she said Tuesday night. “Even when you talked about the Tuskegee Airmen, he never necessarily talked about his experience. He talked about what the Tuskegee Airmen did for the world.”
Edwards died Monday afternoon at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center. He was 95 years old and, according to Bowers, “one of the greatest historians you’ll ever know.”
Although it took decades for him to begin sharing his story with his loved ones, he dedicated his later life to sharing it with anyone who would listen. Edwards booked speaking engagements across the country, received a Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush and attended both of President Barack Obama’s inaugurations.
“Once that door was open, he went through all the way, and he was a historian to his heart,” Bowers said.
Edwards arrived in the Air Force as a World War II draftee, missing his wife and mourning his plans to start a family. There, he told WCPO in February, he and other black servicemen in the 477th Bombardment Group occupied an uncomfortable in-between position — welcome to fight and die for their country, but not to live in it as equal citizens. The nation they returned to at the end would still be segregated.
For the most part, the military was, too. At Freeman Army Airfield, where he worked as an aircraft mechanic supervisor, black servicemen could be promoted to officers but couldn’t spend time in the officers’ club.
"Being African-American, the military had made it known that you was not supposed to be respected as a military person although you would be a part of the military effort," he said then.
In 1945, he said, that began to change. Black officers at Freeman walked into the club and refused to leave.
"They arrested, like, 19 at one time,” Edwards recalled. “And then another group of officers, like 25, go in, and they arrest them."
The Freeman Field mutiny ended in 162 arrest and caused enough of an uproar to begin a concerted push for desegregation in the military.
Edwards talked about that and other military experiences with exacting detail, Bowers said.
“Anything that you said that was not correct, Daddy made sure that you get it correct or else you don’t say anything at all,” she said. “He was very adamant about details. The most important thing he told was how important it was for desegregation in the military.”
His final speaking engagement was in Alaska. In July, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and retired from public life.
Bowers spent his last days with him at the VA hospital. By the end, she said, he could no longer speak and communicated with a notepad.
Two days before his death, she reaffirmed what he had always meant to their family.
“I said ‘You might not be large, but you’re still in charge.’ And he smiles and gave me the thumbs up,” she said.
And then he was gone.
Bowers said she hopes the world will remember him for his contribution to history and for who he was as a man: A selfless stickler for facts, family and furthering the legacy of the other Tuskegee Airmen.
“It’s humbling to see how my father, how God that created the universe, allowed me to have a father in my life that meant so much to me personally and also the people in the world,” she said. “I want them to always value what he represented.”
Edwards will be buried Oct. 4 at the First Unitarian Church in Avondale with full military honors.