SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) – Maury Reid, one of the Tuskegee Airmen who were the nation’s first black military pilots, has died. He was 81.

Reid died July 4 at Bay Pines Medical Center in St. Petersburg after a long illness, his son said Sunday.

He was born in Harlem, N.Y., and graduated with the 44G class at the Air Force program for black pilots in Tuskegee, Ala.

“He signed up before he finished high school,” said Yenwith Whitney, who trained with Reid at Tuskegee.

“We knew very well for us to be in the Air Force there had been a long battle to overcome all the prejudices that existed,” Whitney said. “It was all black as far as trainees were concerned, but the man who commanded the base was white. He was committed to seeing that the blacks got the best flight training possible.”

Injuries Reid suffered when his plane crashed during a test flight prevented him from flying any overseas missions during World War II, his son said. After the war, Reid returned to New York, where he faced racial discrimination when he applied for jobs, his son Maurice said.

“There wasn’t the opportunity for black pilots at that time to fly. Airlines wouldn’t hire you. He tried it but quickly realized it was a pipe dream,” Maurice Reid said.

He also fought segregation in his children’s New York school district, which he successfully sued to move them from an overcrowded black school to a predominantly white school with smaller class sizes, Maurice Reid said.

Maury Reid remained active as a Tuskegee alumnus, speaking about the program at museums, schools and churches, his son said. He also appeared in a 2004 documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen, “Silver Wings and Civil Rights.”

Reid worked for the New York Transit Authority for more than 35 years, and moved to Sarasota in 1993. He is survived by his wife and two sons; his daughter died last year. A funeral is scheduled Tuesday in Sarasota.

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