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African American Contributions to the History of New Jersey: Persons of Interest

Double Victory: Jersey's Tuskegee Airmen

George Watson

On January 4, 1944, nearly two years after he had enlisted at Fort Dix, Technical Sergeant George Watson Sr. set sail from Norfolk, Virginia, aboard the Liberty ship S.S. Josiah Bartlett along with other members of the first all-black service unit in World War II.

In June 1939, the Civilian Pilot Training Act had been signed into law, authorizing the private training of military pilots by civilian schools. A last-minute amendment allowed the limited inclusion of African-Americans in the program. The Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, was among the black colleges approved to provide the training. 

Still, not until two years later did the War Department, under pressure from the African-American community, announce the formation of an all-black unit of pilots, the 99th Pursuit Squadron. The activation of three more all-black squadrons, under the 332nd Fighter Group, soon followed. 

The Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves in combat, flying hundreds of missions over wartime Europe, including 179 bomber escort missions. They are credited with destroying more than 260 enemy planes in the air and on the ground, as well as enemy vehicles and ships. They earned three Distinguished Unit Citations, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses and many other medals. At least 150 gave their lives during the war, including 66 killed in action.

Read more about some of the New Jersey Tuskegee Airmen here.

More Notable Names

Dr. George Cannon & Family -  A prominent physician, became influential in Republican Party politics during the 1920’s. He gave the seconding speech nominating Calvin Coolidge for President at the 1924 Republican Convention. He also started the Frederick Douglass Movie Company, which filmed at the Cannon Estate at 354 Pacific Avenue. In addition, Dr. Cannon founded the John Brown Building and Loan Association, 128 Union Street, which became Jersey City’s first Black Bank. His sister,  Etta Cannon, became Jersey City’s first Black Public School Principal in 1950. Dr. Cannon's daughter, Gladys Cannon Nunery, was prominent in education as well, and former P.S. 29 bears her name at the intersection of Claremont and Rose Avenues.

More notables:

Walter G. Alexander - The first African American elected to the New Jersey Assembly. 

E. Frederic Morrow - In 1955 President Eisenhower appointed E. Frederic Morrow as Administrative Officer for Special Projects, making him the first African American to serve in an executive position at the White House.

Thomas Mundy Petersen - The first Black man to vote after ratification of the 15th Amendment.  He voted in a municipal election in Perth Amboy. 

Donald Payne - The first African American to represent New Jersey in the US House of Representatives. 

John S. Rock -  From Salem, New Jersey, was the first African American admitted to practice law before the US Supreme Court.

George Henry Wanton - Was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry during the Spanish-American War. 

Charles L. Whigham - Founded City National Bank, the first Black owned and operated commercial bank in New Jersey. 

Madeline A. Williams - The first Black woman elected to the New Jersey Legislature.  

 Richard Allen - Founder of the AME Church was the pastor at Mt. Pisgah AME Church in Lawnside, NJ

Read more at: Black History in New Jersey