Tuskegee Airman Gibson dies at 89

Metro Tuskegee Airmen and Charleston resident Edward Gibson with the Tuskegee Airmen medallion by the United States Mint. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 1/18/12 Published Caption 1/19/12: Edward Gibson, 89, of Charleston is one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen in South Carolina. Gibson (top right, inset) and the other airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

Throughout his life, Edward Matthew Gibson Sr. challenged the nation’s prejudices and perceptions of race.

He was a Tuskegee Airman, one of the first black aviators in the U.S. military. And when World War II ended and he returned to Charleston, his home, he kept pushing.

He became the first equal employment counselor at the Charleston Naval Shipyard, where he heard and handled more than 1,000 allegations of discrimination.

Gibson died Monday. He was 89. Gibson was one of the last original airmen in South Carolina. Now, only Earl Adams of Myrtle Beach and Leroy Bowman of Sumter live in the state.

Gibson was stationed first in Walterboro in 1942, before training at a number of airfields, including, notably, Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute.

There, he participated in the so-called “Tuskegee Experiment,” which trained African Americans to fly, operate and maintain fighter planes for the Army Air Corps. They were the first African American aviators in the military.

In the midst of segregation and Jim Crow laws, that distinction garnered ridicule and harassment both on and off base.

In one instance, visiting home after he was commissioned as an officer, he was confronted by white officers, who asked where he’d gotten his uniform, Gibson told The Post and Courier in April. He was arrested for impersonating an officer.

But he pressed on and served as a bombardier navigator in the 477th Bombardment Group, 616th Squadron in Fort Knox, Ky. That unit never deployed overseas; they were still training when the war ended.

“They were the most highly trained bombing unit in the war, but they never had a chance to fight,” said Johnnie Thompson, historian of the Lowcountry’s Hiram E. Mann chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., of which Gibson was a member.

In March 2007, his efforts were recognized as he and the other original Tuskegee Airmen gathered in the Capitol rotunda in Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

The gold medal is the highest civilian award given by the United States, but it’s just one of the many recognitions Gibson received.

Plaques, statues and pictures adorn his Cannon Street home. Many sit on a bookshelf by the front door. Others hang from the wood paneling in a hallway that leads to his kitchen.

They’re the vestiges of his military service, his role as master of the Freemason’s Nehemiah Lodge 51 and his various other affiliations, and behind each one, there’s a story.

There’s the photograph of him and some friends at Hardee’s, where they ate each morning, and the signed game ball from USC’s football game against the Citadel last fall that was mistakenly addressed to “Ed, Jr.,” his son.

The father and son joked about that ball, and it still tickles Gibson Jr., 63, that white-out now covers the “Jr.”

Along with those awards are pictures of his family, where his impact was, perhaps, more profound.

He is survived by his four children, Miriam Porter, Edward Gibson Jr., Shuan Gibson and Patrice Chishom. Today, they call themselves the “fortunate four.”

That’s because their father influenced and inspired them. He was the “motivating force” in their lives, Edward Gibson Jr. said.

He expected them all to graduate from college, and they did, often going on to receive graduate degrees. He helped them each day with their homework, and he made sure they knew right from wrong.

“If you were in the wrong spot doing the wrong thing, it made it home,” Chishom, 43, said — often, Edward Gibson Jr. added, before they could make it home themselves.

And while they strive to instill those ideals in their own children and pass on their father’s legacy, his children haven’t forgotten who Edward Gibson Sr. was to them.

“I tell people, y’all call him lieutenant and brother and Gibby,” Edward Gibson Jr. said. “I call him daddy.”

Reach Thad Moore at 958-7360 or on Twitter @thadmoore.