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WILMINGTON, Del. (CBS) — Students are getting a history lesson as they honor one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.
Students at a Wilmington elementary school will now be able to learn more about the life and legacy of a man who was not only a member of the elite Tuskegee Airmen, but also an educator who shaped the lives of many students in Delaware.
When young Christian Thomas sees the memorial to Fred T. Johnson, he sees pride and inspiration in a man who helped pave the way for him.
“When I see Fred T. Johnson, I think of him as an African-American, black teacher and I see that symbolizes all the black teachers in the world that had to fight to get here,” Thomas said.
The bust and memorial wall was unveiled to honor a man who holds a very special place, not just in Delaware’s history, but American history as well.
Johnson was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the only African-American navigator from Delaware to serve in World War II. He received a Congressional Gold Medal in 2013.
But he was also an educator, a science teacher who taught Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki at what is currently Warner Elementary.
“To come home and be an educator in a school that was largely white at that time — if not all white,” Purzycki said. “And he was, as a friend of mine who was in one of his classes said at the time, ‘The best teacher I ever had,'” Purzycki said.
Chrishawn Fitzgerald is the principal at Warner Elementary and knows the Johnson family. She’s proud her school was picked to honor a man whose legacy looms largely in the African-American community.
“For me, what makes Fred Johnson so special is that he’s an African-American male educator, “Fitzgerald said. “We found that, in our profession, that only 2 percent of the profession is African-American males.
“Where in the data that’s opposite of that says that African-American males in the classroom make a huge impact,” Fitzgerald said.
Students can now see a bust of Fred Johnson’s likeness, pictures and memorabilia honoring his history-making life. They are all images of a man who defied the odds and broke down barriers.
“I want people to understand that here’s an extraordinary guy who did not let society define him,” Purzycki said.
Johnson passed away in 2017 but his legacy will live on forever.