Hagerstown Tuskegee Airman’s family and friends honor his legacy

Black History Month

The Tuskegee Airmen were African American pilots who fought during World War II.

One local resident broke the color barrier as a member, his legacy continues to be honored in Hagerstown. 

Robert William Johnson came to Hagerstown initially to teach science and physical education at the North Street school, which today is home to MLK Headstart. That’s where he met his sweetheart. 

“My husband had graduated from an integrated school, and his friend had graduated from an all Black school. His friend had graduated from an all Black school, and they just wanted to compare their knowledge, I guess, and what not,” said Johnson. “My husband said before they knew it, they both were being sworn into the army.” 

Patricia Johnson was a high school senior, and they would marry for 57 years. But before all of that, he was a part of history, a member of the first Black military airmen group, who flew as escorts for bombers in World War II.

Pamela Sonntag is one of the Johnson’s four children.

“This is the group of planes that escorted the bombers, and they were called the red tails,” Sonntag said. 

Sonntag said her father went through rigorous training in Alabama in 1945, but never saw combat.

“He was in the next unit to go out, but the war did end right before he was scheduled to go out,” she said. 

Robert Johnson was part of the 45-1 class during his training with the Tuskegee Airmen. 

“When the movie, the Tuskegee Airmen (1995) came out, I was like, wait a minute. My dad was a Tuskegee Airman and in Hagerstown. You have someone, and that’s when all this started as she references the display case showcasing his memorabilia at the Discovery Station in Hagerstown. 

Robert, also known as “coach” to his students, passed away in June 2009 at the age of 82. He was eventually recognized for his efforts. 

Aubrey Evans is a lifelong friend. He says this: “He was a teacher, he was a father, he was a mentor, he was a man of God.” 

Yet among his long list of accomplishments, “coach” was inducted into the Washington County Sports Hall of Fame in 1988.

His memory and legacy are still remembered in Hagerstown with the Robert W. Johnson community center on North Avenue dedicated to him. 

“He respected you for who you were, and what you brought to the table. May he ever rest in peace. I love him dearly,” said Evans. 

“It’s kind of funny, because I think I’ve taken his mantle,” said Sonntag. “Sometimes, I’ll feel like him when I’m doing things in the house or doing things for my mom. I feel like I’m doing things physically, but it’s his mantle, how he would do it.” 

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