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Past, present, perseverance: Walter Richardson shares his life and career experiences

Chief Master Sgt. Walter Richardson said he isn’t trying to reopen past wounds, only show how far things have come since he grew up in segregation-era Pensacola.

On Saturday, March 16, Richardson, the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, spoke to the Pensacola Historical Society at the J. Earle Bowden Building downtown about growing up in Pensacola, his time with the Tuskegee Airmen and his part in integrating the U.S. Air Force.

“It is not to remove the scab off the wounds of all the things that happened back then,” Richardson said. “It is more to share with you where we were, how far we have moved and what we have figured was a contribution to Pensacola.”

Chief Master Sgt. Walter Richardson speaks about his Pensacola roots and experience in integrating the U.S. Air Force.
(Photo by Stephen Crawford)

Before going into detail about his own story, Richardson paid tribute to some other notable African-American Pensacola natives, including Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, the first black American to achieve the rank of four-star general, and fellow Tuskegee Airman Lt. James Polkinghorne.

“People of Pensacola, past and present, have accumulated an impressive list of achievements,” Richardson said.

Richardson, who enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1949, entertained the group with the tales of his life, including how he got his start with the airmen as part of a singing group before becoming an aircraft mechanic.

However, the recurring theme was the foundation he established despite growing up in a community that forced him to walk three miles to school every day—right past the white school he couldn’t attend.

Though Richardson said he lost his voice earlier in the week, he still serenaded the audience with his version of “The Impossible Dream,” a song he said sums up his life well.

“This is a dream, but it’s not the impossible dream,” he said. “We are the only country that I know of that could go through the social and economic changes we’ve had without going into another civil war.”

After asking the audience how this country does it, Richardson asked everyone to take out their wallets and look at a dollar bill. The words “In God We Trust” are what he said makes the difference for America.

“We should never go through life embarrassing God, or being embarrassed of who we are,” he said.

In 2008, Richardson’s book “How Great Thou Art: A Black Boy’s Depression-Era Success Story” was released, which Richardson said tells his story in great detail.

“All this came from a boy born in Pensacola, raised on East Jackson Street the son of an unwed mother,” he said.

“My elementary teacher, the mother of Gen. James, taught us to keep our bags packed and be prepared to enter when the doors of opportunity opened for little colored boys and girls,” Richardson said. “I’m 84 years old and keep my bags packed now – today is another door of opportunity.”

Richardson’s presentation coincided with the T. T. Wentworth Florida State Museum’s final day hosting the National Endowment for the Humanities’ traveling exhibit called “Our Lives, Our Stories: America’s Greatest Generation.”

Lynne Robertson, chief curator of the Wentworth museum, said there’s much on the horizon for the historical society in 2013.

“We’ve got a $500,000 grant from BP to redo the first floor of Wentworth, so shortly after our open house on June 1, we will be closing down the first floor and starting the renovation,” Robertson said. “That will be completed toward the end of October.”

For more information about the Pensacola Historical Society, visit

Stephen Crawford
Staff Writer

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