When Julius Freeman, 82, parks one of his vintage cars at an automobile show, he turns it into a kind of personal mobile museum, laying out his favorite memorabilia on the hood. In the center, he lines up the traces of his career as a Tuskegee airman: medals; citations; a three-foot-long photograph of his comrades, rows of black faces under military caps.
It was not always this way. Until two years ago, Mr. Freeman’s experience in the country’s first black aviation combat unit — whose successes in World War II helped pave the way for the desegregation of the military — was a part of his life that he thought had been packed away forever.
After being trained in Tuskegee, Ala., and serving in France and Germany as a medical technician, he was disappointed to find that his trailblazing had not budged racism in America.
“Nothing had changed,” he recalled.
He cut ties with his military friends. He destroyed his old uniforms. And even though he continued to cross racial barriers throughout a life he recalls with evident pleasure — he became a prominent car dealer in New York with an interracial clientele that included the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese as well as James Brown and has been married to a white woman since 1964 — he never stressed his identity as a Tuskegee airman.
“I didn’t think about the service. I didn’t want to know anything about it,” Mr. Freeman said in his den in Springfield Gardens, Queens. It is plastered with photos of him with famous customers (Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory), trapshooting trophies and a model of a Tuskegee Red Tail plane — a recent addition.
Now, amid a flood of new national recognition, men like Mr. Freeman are embracing their past. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the airmen the Congressional Gold Medal. President Obama invited the veterans to his inauguration, saying they had paved his way to the presidency.
The airmen are in unprecedented demand as speakers. Their alumni chapters have attracted new members. Of the original 16,000 pilots and ground crew members, fewer than 330 are believed to be alive.
York College in Queens is establishing what it hopes will be the nation’s most comprehensive permanent museum exhibit on the airmen, the first in the Northeast.
The college is asking alumni like Mr. Freeman to donate records and memorabilia. But York’s president, Marcia V. Keizs, says it is an uphill battle to persuade men who felt unrecognized for so long to trust an outside institution to protect and respect their prized possessions.
York College, whose student body is 90 percent minority and includes 75 aviation management majors held a gala for the airmen last month at which they toured a preliminary exhibit and were serenaded by the Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell, whose father was a Tuskegee airman.
The dozens of airmen who settled in and around New York and lived colorful yet unsung lives are now enjoying an unaccustomed spotlight.
In Queens, Mr. Freeman answers his door in a Tuskegee Airmen windbreaker emblazoned with his name and watches and rewatches a YouTube clip of him receiving an award at a country club on Long Island.
In Hempstead, N.Y., William Wheeler, 85, a retired publishing executive who strafed three German bombers on missions over Greece, builds the partnership with York College as a liaison and runs monthly meetings of Tuskegee veterans at Kennedy Airport.
In the Bronx, Floyd Carter, 86, roots through boxes and envelopes on his dining room floor, looking for suitable donations from his Tuskegee experience.
The three former airmen have lived widely varying lives, but all broke racial boundaries in ways large and small: In 1941, Mr. Carter left the “race” line blank on his application to a naval college that had refused black applicants, and was ultimately admitted. In 1945, Mr. Wheeler stepped into Harlem traffic in his airman’s uniform to halt a taxi for a young black woman who was having trouble getting white drivers to stop; she became his wife. In postwar Germany, Mr. Freeman saved the life of a Jewish soldier from his hometown, Columbus, Ohio, by pushing him out of the way of sniper fire; the man’s father, a Hudson car dealer, gave him his first job selling vehicles.
More than the others, Mr. Carter kept his Tuskegee experience close to the surface, staying in touch with many of his war comrades, constantly talking about it with his children. (His daughter is an I.B.M. executive; his son a mathematics professor; and two of his grandchildren, a medical student and a lawyer, regularly impress restaurateurs with their fluent Chinese, he says proudly.)
He could not avoid it, perhaps, since he and his wife, Artherine, 84, met at the air base at the Tuskegee Institute, where he trained as a pilot and she repaired airplanes with an all-female crew.
Mr. Carter later became an Air Force reservist, flying transport missions in the Berlin airlift and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He retired from the military in 1974 as a lieutenant colonel. In civilian life, he was a police detective in New York, often working as a bodyguard for visiting dignitaries.
He remembered talking politics with Fidel Castro. He thought the United States government should negotiate with the Cuban leader.
“If I talk to you, I can convince you to come my way,” he said.
Mr. Freeman, meanwhile, built a career based on a certain flair for marketing.
After successfully selling Hudsons in Columbus, he moved to New York in 1954. But white-owned dealerships would not hire him, and he ended up emptying trash cans at the Empire State Building. One day, he so impressed a Hudson dealer with his encyclopedic knowledge of the make that he hired him.
He drove Brooklyn’s streets with a placard that read: “Get tomorrow’s car today! Drive the Freeman way!” and billed himself as an “automologist” — a specialty, he says, that exists “only in a Freeman dictionary.” Later, a Chevrolet dealer offered him a job, saying, “You’re the most aggressive salesman I’ve ever seen.”
Soon, he met his wife, Dorothy, an immigrant from Germany, when he tried to sell her a car.
He really hit his stride, he said, when he started selling Lincolns. In 1977, when they cost far less than today, he sold $1 million worth.
Although most of his customers were white, he made a name for himself by offering black celebrities cars he had designed for them. His favorite was a car covered inside and out with brown Naugahyde, which came with a matching jacket and hat. It was sold to a West Coast D.J.
His Tuskegee experience, though buried, was behind his success, he said: “I was accustomed to fight for everything that we got.”
By Julius Freeman for the NYTimes.com