The late Tuskegee Airman William Wheeler, considered a role model for Black pilots by many, was honored on Aug. 24 for his service to the country during World War II and his contributions to the aviation field. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Legislator Siela Bynoe inaugurated a stretch of Charles Lindbergh Boulevard as William M. Wheeler Way in honor of the Black lieutenant at a renaming ceremony attended by Wheeler’s sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“We’re thrilled that the county has designated a portion of Charles Lindbergh Boulevard to honor William Wheeler,” said Andrew Parton, president of the Cradle of Aviation Museum, which the newly dedication portion of the street passes by, stretching from the intersection of Geoffrey Avenue to the intersection of Earle Ovington Boulevard in Uniondale.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of mostly Black military personnel who fought in World War II, forming the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. Though the Airmen were generally fighter and bomber pilots, a number of them were Black nurses, navigators, cooks and other support workers who contributed to the war effort.
Having flown more than 15,000 individual sorties during World War II, the pilots, like all Black Americans, were still subject at the time to Jim Crow laws, so they could not eat in restaurants, sleep in hotels, attend school or often live in the same neighborhoods with white people in many parts of the country, and the military was still racially segregated.
“Bill was a great man and a great inspiration to thousands of Long Islanders,” Parton said. “He spent a great deal of time at the Cradle [of Aviation Musuem] meeting with students of all ages. His experience as a Tuskegee Airman served to inspire generations to look at aviation as a great career path.”
Nassau County Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello said Wheeler “served our nation with extraordinary courage and distinction,” calling him “a true trailblazer, role model and certainly worthy of this honor,” and assuring attendees at the ceremony that “his memory will live on forever in the community he loved.”
Wheeler was a long-time Hempstead resident and 1943 Howard University alumnus who went on to join the 994 Black pilots known collectively as the Tuskegee Airmen. Following a long career in aviation, he spent his retired life taking part in air shows and visiting schools to lecture about the history of Black aviators. In 2011, Wheeler died at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre at the age of 87, leaving behind a legacy of Black resilience in the historically white-dominated aviation field.
“Lt. William Wheeler made history as one of the first Black fighter pilots in World War II, as a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen,” said State Sen. Kevin Thomas, who represents the 6th District. “His story is one of bravery, character, courage and commitment. Lieutenant Wheeler’s work to preserve the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen has inspired generations. The dedication of William M. Wheeler Way is a fitting testament to his remarkable life, legacy and service to our country.”
A number of films have been produced about the Tuskegee Airmen. The unit derives its name from Tuskegee University, the historically Black university in Alabama from which the majority of the airmen graduated. The Tuskegee Airmen are also honored with a mural in Philadelphia. The street renaming in Hempstead is known to be the second public honoring of a Tuskegee pilot in the United States.
“Bill Wheeler is a true American hero,” Hempstead Mayor Don Ryan said. “He left Howard University as a sophomore in March of 1943 to answer his nation’s call. A year later he earned his wings. Applause to Nassau County for renaming a portion of Charles Lindberg Boulevard as William M. Wheeler Way.”