Former Tuskegee Airman Lowell C. Steward, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal in 1944 for his actions during World War II, died Wednesday at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, Calif.
He was 95.
Lowell Steward Jr. said his father passed away peacefully with several members of his immediate family at his bedside. He had come down with a cold on Sunday evening at his home in Oxnard, Calif. that quickly turned into pneumonia, Lowell Jr. said.
He is survived by his son, daughters Pamela Mills and Shelley Lambert, 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
“He died an American hero,” Lowell Jr. said Friday. “He was a pioneer in many areas when it came to breaking down barriers and partly responsible for getting the Armed Forces integrated.”
“Because of the mindset the Tuskegee Airmen had set in motion, that we have to stand up and have to make things better, it paved the way for people like Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King,” he said.
Born on Feb. 25, 1919, in Los Angeles, Steward graduated from Jefferson High School in 1937 and enrolled at Santa Barbara State College, now UC Santa Barbara, where he became the first black captain of the basketball team.
Steward led the Gauchos to the championship game in St. Louis in 1941 but was told he couldn’t play because he was black.
In Santa Barbara, he also met his wife Helen, known as “Tootsie.” She died in 2004 after almost 60 years of marriage.
Steward graduated from college in 1941. In July 1942, after the Army Air Corps. began allowing blacks to serve as pilots, he enlisted and was sent for training at a remote base in Tuskegee, Alabama.
He was shipped to Italy in 1944 with the 100th Fighter Squadron of the famed all-black unit, known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
America’s first black military pilots faced an unprecedented level of scrutiny under racial segregation. As a result they held themselves to a higher standard, Steward often said.
Over two years, Steward flew 143 bomber escort and strafing missions in North Africa and Europe, his son said, as part of the 100th Fighter Squadron, flying P-39, P-40 and P-51 aircraft.
Lowell Jr. recalls his father as a quiet and reserved man, except when he was in an airplane.
“He was an excellent, well-trained pilot but he rarely talked about his exploits,” he said. “He wasn’t proud of the combat side, that it was a war and that people died at his hand.
“That set a reality for him which he said took him a long time to get over.”
After his discharge in 1946, Steward returned to Los Angeles where he and his wife tried to buy a home. His son says no bank would agree to finance a mortgage because of their color.
“So he went and got his own real estate license and learned the trade and brokered deals that integrated parts of Los Angeles in the early ’50s,” said Lowell Jr.
Among those who bought houses from his father, he says, were Little Richard’s mother and the father of former Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks.
In later years, he had a growing sense of satisfaction as he saw progress being made in race relations and integration.
“That’s what he was proud of,” his son said.
Steward served as the first president of the Los Angeles Chapter of Tuskegee Airman founded in 1974. He was also one of the founders of the Tuskegee Airmen Scholarship Foundation that has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships to students across the country.
In 2007, Steward was present at the U.S. Capitol when President George W. Bush presented members of the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal.
The family says funeral services for Steward will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Angelus Funeral Home, 3875 Crenshaw Blvd., in Los Angeles. It will be followed by a reception at the Wilfandel Club at 3425 W. Adams Blvd. The service is open to the public.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.