10th Annual Black History Month Celebration

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10th Annual Black History Month Celebration
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Tuskegee Airman, Lt. Calvin J. Spann, Spoke to SRO Crowd at Miller Branch’s 10th Annual Black History Month Program

The Jersey City Free Public Library proudly hosted a standing room-only audience of over 300 for the presentation of one of our country’s true heroes – Tuskegee Airman Lt. Calvin J. Spann – who was a featured guest speaker at the 10th Annual Black History Month program of the Miller Branch Library on Wednesday evening, February 29, 2012, whose theme was “Service, Honor, and Respect, Strengthening Our Culture and Community.”

Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Incorporated, working in conjunction with the Miller Branch to produce the 10th annual Black History Month program, first presented Stomp Exhibitions and a special award to Chief Darren E. Rivers, Jersey City Fire Department. Live performances of song, music and dance, a skit by Playtime Productions, and drills from the cadets of the Eagle Flight Squadron, Inc. Youth in Aviation program rounded out the program.

The honored guest spoke because of the generosity of state, county, city official, library and foundation trustees, employees and friends, all of whom have contributed toward Lt. Spann’s speaking fee, because there has been no program money over the last 3.5 years due to the severe cuts to the library’s budget. All donors who made this program possible were formally thanked within the souvenir program.

There were other Tuskegee Airmen in the audience, honoring one of their own. In his remarks, Lt. Calvin J. Spann told of his experiences as a pilot during World War II – and a few jokes, too! He was a poised, well-spoken man, with a youthful man’s energy, belying his 87 years.

Lt. Spann proved his mettle as a remarkable hero for the ages. It was a pleasure for the Miller Branch Library Staff of the Jersey City Free Public Library to have presented such a national treasure. The audience was in awe when Lt. Spann walked into auditorium. He saluted his fellow Tuskegee Airmen, who saluted in return. Lt. Spann received a standing ovation.

Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy gave Lt. Spann the Key to the City, and proclamations were presented by NJ State Senator Sandra B. Cunningham (31st LD) and Councilwoman At Large Viola Richardson, as well as representatives for US Congressman Donald Payne (10th CD) and Hudson County Freeholder Jeffrey Dublin. Library Board President Sondra E. Buesing Riley and Secretary Alicia Bass, along with Library Foundation Board Members Roselyn Jackson and Tony Gardner, attended.

After the program, Lt. Spann indicated he was impressed with the crowd and the awards he received, not with false humility, but with pride for having served his country well. At the program’s end, Lt. Spann graciously held court and signed autographs for anyone who wanted one.


A precocious and smart young man, Calvin Spann was a Golden Gloves boxing champion at age 16 and left to join the war effort during his senior high school year. He passed a two-year college equivalency test, and at age 17, was called to serve in the Army Air Corps, one month before he would have graduated.

This “Red Tail” fighter, named after the tail of the P51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, hails from Rutherford, NJ, and lived in Englewood only until one year ago when he moved to Allex, TX.

Enduring his father’s death while in high school and being the oldest male in his family, Lt. Spann was not told by his mother that his home had burned down since he was recently stationed in Italy. She did not want to jeopardize her son’s military service, because the Red Cross would have sent him home.

Lt. Calvin J. Spann volunteered for the Army Air Corps and was sent to Tuskegee, AL to start aviation cadet training in 1943. After training completion, Lieutenant Spann was sent to Italy as a replacement combat pilot and given an instruction manual to fly the P51 Mustang fighter plane. His assignment was with the 100th Fighter Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group. Lt. Spann flew 26 combat missions in Europe before the end of World War II, and leaving Italy, was honorably discharged in the United States in 1946. He remained in the Air Force Reserves until 1961, though did not formally retire.

Lt. Spann opted to leave the reserves because of the limited scheduling opportunities allowed for African Americans to fly. “I was trying to go to school at nights and work during the day. I couldn’t spend the weekends trying to get a plane and not even get one. They didn’t allocate enough planes for people to get their time in. And pilots have to fly at least four hours a month to qualify for flying pay. Not getting a chance to fly, I decided to get my discharge.”

Furthermore, Spann eventually worked in pharmaceutical sales, taking that job after his applications to fly commercial planes after the war were grounded. Only after a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling to force the major commercial airlines to hire African Americans as pilots, which happened too late for Lt. Spann’s pilot career, did desegregation in commercial aviation occur.

Previously, on July 29, 1948, through the efforts of U.S. President Harry S. Truman, the U.S. military formally desegregated, and it was the Tuskegee Airmen, a segregated military unit, that opened the skies for all others to fly.

Lt. Calvin J. Spann distinguished himself while serving in the Army Air Corps, 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, receiving many military awards, among them the Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster, a Presidential Unit Citation, and the Mediterranean Theatre of Operation ribbon. In addition, this Tuskegee Airman earned the American Theatre and World War II Victory button.

Lt. Spann has received many other prestigious honors, including being inducted into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame, and being invited to The White House by President Barack Obama, along with other Tuskegee Airmen and their families, for a Veterans’ Day event. In 2006, Tuskegee University awarded Calvin a Doctor of Public Service degree.

When describing his flying missions, which were escorting bombers and doing reconnaissance work, Lt. Spann has joked, “That first ride is a thrill, even for a young crazy guy.” Believe it or not, he didn’t think his missions were scary. “We were trained to feel that if something was going to happen, it would be to the other guy, not you. Prayer has always been in the forefront of what I’ve tried to do.”

Yes, truly… On a wing, and a prayer…

QUITE AN HONOR… Jersey City Library Board President Sondra E. Buesing Riley greets Tuskegee Airman Lt. Calvin J. Spann at the Miller Branch Library Black History Month program.

WELCOME! – Miller Branch Library Head Reneé Moody welcomes the SRO audience of over 300 to the 10th Annual Black History Month program on February 29, 2012.

THANK YOU – The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., which co-sponsored the Black History Month program at Miller for the last several years, gave the library the book, What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors by Kareen Abdul-Jabar. Priscilla Gardner, library director for the Jersey City Free Public Library, accepted the book.

STOMP! – The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. performed a rousing stomp exhibition of several drills.

HISTORY, AT A GLANCE… Playtime Productions’ vignettes of famous African Americans gave an inkling of their rich heritage. Pictured: Coretta King & the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

ON FIRE! – Jersey City Fire Chief Darren E. Rivers addressed the audience after receiving an award from the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

WE SALUTE YOU, LT. SPANN – The cadets of Eagle Flight Aviation performed the drills that are part of their training, not for military purposes, but for listening to directions and personal discipline.

INTRODUCING AVIATION’S FINEST – Gwenelle Spann, wife of Lt. Calvin J. Spann, introduced the Tuskegee Airman, who took to the stage like a duck takes to water!

BEING THE BEST IS ‘KEY’… Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy greets Lt. Spann before he gave him the Key to the City, and a Proclamation, honoring him as one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

HONORS GALORE – Tuskegee Airman Lt. Calvin J. Spann received numerous honors, many from the elected officials that serve Hudson County, NJ. L to R: Lt. Spann, Jersey City Councilwoman At Large Viola Richardson, NJ State Senator Sandra B. Cunningham (31st LD), and a representative of U.S. Congressman Donald Payne (10th CD), whose illness precluded him from attending the February 29th event. Congressman Payne, the first – and only – African American Congressman from NJ died on March 6, 2012 from cancer.

ONE, OF MANY HONORS – Jersey City Deputy Mayor Kabili Tayari presented Lt. Spann with the Proclamation from Hudson County Freeholder Jeff Dublin (District 3), who represents the historically African American section of Jersey City, NJ.

SOARING TO HIGHER HEIGHTS – Tuskegee Airman Lt. Calvin J. Spann assumed the controls at the recent Miller Branch Library 10th Annual Black History Month program in Jersey City, NJ, and held the audience in awe of this 87-year-old’s command of wisdom, mixed with devastating wit.

A JOB WELL DONE – Miller Branch Head Reneé Moody, flanked by Chief Librarian Hussein Odeh (left) and Library Director Priscilla Gardner (right) holds the bouquet of flowers she received at the end of the two-hour Black History Month program.

WHO SUPPORTS PUBLIC LIBRARIES? – Library Director Priscilla Gardner adds Tuskegee Airman Lt. Calvin J. Spann to her growing list of elected officials and famous people, who proudly hold up the Jersey City library card, in support of Jersey City’s and public libraries everywhere. Such notables as then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, NJ-native talk show host Wendy Williams, and comedienne Rosie O’Donnell have raised the library card for Jersey City!

LANDING A ‘KNOCKOUT’ – Ray Robinson II beams as Tuskegee Airman Lt. Calvin J. Spann gives his autograph for ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson IV, his newborn grandson, and great-grandson of the late prizefighter Sugar Ray Robinson, the ‘Knockout King’ and best fighter, pound for pound.

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