I was honored a few days ago to sit down with a World War II hero. Oh, he doesn’t call himself a hero. But to me and all who know him, James “Bill” Poitier is a living hero and one of the last of a generation of Blacks who served our country during World War II.
We sat at his dining room table that was laden with birthday cards and decorations from his recent birthday celebration. Poitier was just three days shy of his 96th birthday on Sept. 9 when I met him.
Born in Miami, Poitier is a cousin to the Oscar-winning late actor Sidney Poitier. “My grandma was his aunt,” Poitier said proudly. Poitier graduated in the class of 1944 from Booker T. Washington Junior/Senior High School in Overtown. “… Then I was off to New York. You know, that’s where all the young Blacks wanted to go back then.”
Little is known about Blacks like Poitier, who worked behind the scenes to help keep our country safe. On the day I met him, I sat listening like a child being read her favorite story as he told me about his days at Tuskegee Institute and his role in supporting the Tuskegee Airmen.
It was during the war and jobs were easy to find, he said, adding that he went to work making cases for musical instruments. Later, he enrolled in the Eastern School for Physicians’ Aides. He also studied at Columbia College of Pharmacy and at New York City College.
“But I never graduated,” he said.
“I was drafted for the U.S. Army. “Back then we were all drafted to the Army, and once there, according to your aptitude test, they decided which branch to send you to. I was sent to the U.S. Air Forces [USAAF], to serve at Tuskegee.
“I was happy to be there helping to train the pilots. A lot of the guys who were drafted along with me went to other places where there was active fighting.”
At Tuskegee, Poitier was trained as an air traffic controller. “We had a support group that included mechanics and engineers, who were from other places like Mexico and Italy. But they all had dark skin like me and spoke English. However, the pilots were all American Blacks,” he said.
As an air controller, Poitier said his job was to direct landings and takeoffs. “Back then we did our jobs by eyesight and radio. We didn’t have the technology of today,” he said.
One of his fondest memories was working alongside Capt. Charles Hall, a Tuskegee Airman from Chicago who was said to be the first Black pilot to shoot down a German plane. Poitier remembers the Tuskegee Airmen as being an “escort group” “They [the airmen] never lost a plane,” he said proudly. I remember working with a couple of them who flew over Europe.”
Poitier remembers flying with several Tuskegee Airmen in their B-25 bombers. “I used to hop a ride with one of them when I was on furlough and on my way home. They would give me a lift if they were going my way.”
Poitier was an air traffic controller for the Army Air Forces for two years before he was discharged in 1946.
After the glory and excitement of working with the Tuskegee Airmen, Poitier found that after he was discharged, it was more of the same for him as a Black man: Back home in New York, he found that even with all his training, he couldn’t get a job as an air traffic controller.
“So, I went back to my job and became a designer of leather cases for companies like Remington Rand and IBM,” he said. “I designed and made cases for small machines,” he said. It was a job that he held until he was 70 and retired.
Poitier was married nearly 30 years to the late Sara Godett Poitier, a native of North Carolina. They met in New York, and their two sons, James Jr. and Philip, became New York State Police troopers. A daughter, Erica Williams, lives in North Carolina.
Poitier returned to his home state years ago. He and his son James Jr., who is now retired from the New York State Police, share a condo in Pembroke Pines.
Still jovial and energetic, Poitier has never written his memoirs because he said, “I like to travel under the radar.”
Riverside Baptist Church ready to celebrate its 100th birthday
The pandemic changed a lot of things. Church services were placed on hold; businesses closed, some never to open again, and we got used to washing our hands multiple times during the day and wearing face coverings.
Now, that things are somewhat back to normal, Riverside Baptist Church is ready to celebrate its 100th birthday — a year later.
The church wad founded on Oct. 13, 1921, in the Riverside section of Miami. The congregation relocated to the Kendall area in the mid-1970s, where it has been ever since, said Neil Eskolin, who along with his wife Pat, are chairpersons of the anniversary committee.
“Last October on our 100th anniversary we had a modest celebration which was scaled back because of the lingering effects of the pandemic,” Eskolin said. “We decided to postpone a grand celebration until October of 2022, at which time we will celebrate ‘100 Years Plus 1’,” he said.
The celebration will take place Oct. 14-16 and will kick off with a concert to be at 7 p.m. on Friday (Oct. 14). The concert will be followed by an ice cream social. On Saturday (Oct. 15), a churchwide picnic will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Harris Field.
The celebration will culminate with an anniversary worship service at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 16, followed by a box lunch on the church grounds.
Eskolin said all former and present members, and anyone who would like to come are invited.
Bea Hines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org