LANHAM – As a child, Herbert Flowers would look into the sky and picture himself floating above the clouds and soaring through the heavens.
But unlike most children with big dreams that wither with age, Flowers pushed to make his come true. He learned to fly, became an expert and taught other black men to pilot airplanes – all at a time when blacks sat at the back of the bus and drank from water fountains labeled “colored.”
“I’m resourceful,” he says. “I’m very persistent when it comes to doing something I want.”
Flowers’ persistence paid off. He is an original Tuskegee Airman, the nation’s first group of black combat pilots. And he was one of the first blacks to work as a flying instructor.
Next year, his efforts will be honored by his home county. A Prince George’s County school for science and technology will bear his name.
“You would not know of his accomplishments except that others will tell you,” says the Rev. Mark Venson, who has known Flowers for 10 years. “He doesn’t toot his own horn. The more you get to know him the more you realize the tremendous journey he has been on and the sacrifices he has made for others.”
Flowers’ accomplishments are immense, considering the obstacles he has had to overcome. He grew up the only child on a small farm in Wadesboro, N.C.
“We weren’t rich,” he says. “We had a lot of food, that’s `bout all.”
By the time he finished sixth grade, most of Flowers’ boyhood friends abandoned school to farm full-time. But his parents had a vision for Flowers – they wanted him to finish high school, go to college and someday work to uplift his race.
As class sizes got smaller, Flowers excelled, especially in math and physics. After school he’d complete homework assignments or work on the farm. There was hardly a moment for play.
In the quiet moments while doing his chores, he’d glance at the sky and imagine his future.
He was 9 when he got his first close look at an airplane.
“I looked at the plane and I said `I can fly this plane,’ ” he says. “I just thought I could do it.”
But that time Flowers wouldn’t get a chance to ride in the plane, let alone fly it. Still, he believed his time would come.
“I figured I could be the next Lindbergh. If he could fly across the ocean, I can fly across the country.”
After high school, Flowers headed to North Carolina A&T on a two-year scholarship. While working one summer he learned of a place that trained pilots. He eagerly showed up to interview.
“They just laughed,” he says. “They said, `Don’t you know there are no Negroes flying?’ I felt dejected.”
Still, he wouldn’t give up. “I just felt like something would break sooner or later,” he says, and it did. Three years later, while working in Baltimore, Flowers heard about Tuskegee, Ala., a place where young black men were learning to fly.
“I made it my business to be there,” he says. After an entire day of meetings and exams, Flowers heard the news he yearned for – he would become one of the Tuskegee Airmen.
When Flowers arrived on campus in 1941, he couldn’t wait to get into an airplane. But he had to. Ground school was five weeks long. Flowers dove into his work, determined to succeed.
“He hadn’t had prior flight training like some others did, but he excelled immediately,” said Flowers’ ground instructor, retired Air Force Col. Harry Sheppard. “He absorbed information like a sponge.”
Flowers became the first student allowed to fly solo.
“Oh man! It was just like I pictured it,” he says now nearly 50 years later. He smiles and his eyes light up. “It was a barrel of fun. I had never been in a plane before – it felt great.”
Flowers was selected Captain of Cadets for his class, which is why it was a shock he wasn’t selected for the fighting squad. Flowers completed his training, but opportunities for blacks in the military were still limited.
“Excellent pilots were denied the opportunity of a flying career,” Sheppard said. “It’s quite unfortunate because Herb would have been a wonderful fighter pilot. We were so disappointed when he was eliminated.”
But Flowers didn’t sulk in disappointment, he went on to teach future Tuskegee Airmen to fly.
“I felt like I was helping somebody do something they wanted to do,” he says. But as years passed Flowers noticed classes got smaller and fewer black men were interested in flying.
In 1946, Flowers quit teaching and began studying business at North Carolina Central. Still, he longed to fly. He finished school and began teaching again at a flight training school in Charlotte, N.C.
There he organized air shows where he’d perform acrobatic tricks and sometimes let spectators ride in his plane. His shows were so popular he was even featured in the local newspaper.
In 1963, Flowers accepted a position at Goddard Space Center and moved to Lanham.
It’s here in his cozy white house with red shutters that he has continued to live with his wife of 47 years, Wilhelmina Little Flowers. He hardly mentions his days as a Tuskegee Airman. All his clippings and mementos are carefully tucked away, out of sight.
Flowers thought his days as a newsmaker were over. After all, he’s retired and doesn’t do much except volunteer at his church. He was surprised when a member of his church suggested the Prince George’s County school board name a new school after him.
“He has a special place in African-American history,” Boyd Poole said. Poole initially suggested naming the school after Flowers and rallied supporters for the idea. Flowers, Poole says, is too modest to request any honor himself.
“This man does not tell you anything about himself,” Poole says. “I’m around the man all the time and I’m always learning something new about him.”
The first new school to open in Prince George’s County next fall will be called Charles Herbert Flowers High. The school naming had strong opposition because many residents believed a school shouldn’t be named after someone still living.
Flowers says he is excited by the honor. In all his years of daydreaming, never did he imagine a school being named after him.
The 81-year-old Herbert Flowers of today is not different from the young man with smooth brown skin standing near his plane featured in the news clippings. He’s grown a little older and has small black moles sprinkled under his eyes. But he still speaks softly and sometimes reveals his warm smile. He still works out and has a passion for flight.
“You are at peace with yourself up there,” he says. “There is no noise. Just you and your airplane. You and your creator.”