Faculty Work
October 1, 2021

Historical Marker To Honor Ithaca Birthplace of Tuskegee Airman Verdelle Louis Payne

A chance connection led CRP's Thomas J. Campanella to tell the story of Verdelle Louis Payne, Ithaca-born and among the first Black pilots from Upstate New York.

By Patti Witten

Verdelle Louis Payne and Tuskegee Airmen classmates in the training classes SE-45-A and 45-B (order unknown). photo / U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. 


Urbanist and historian Thomas J. Campanella, a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning, says his work is about "'telling places' and excavating hidden or forgotten histories in the built environment." 

Campanella says he came across Payne's name accidentally while researching another early African American pilot — the pioneer barnstormer Hubert Julian — for his recent book, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, and was compelled to learn more about him.

Verdelle Louis Payne was born on October 1, 1919, at 212 Cascadilla Street in Ithaca — coincidentally, the birthplace of Roots author Alex Haley, born there in 1921. The History Center in Tompkins County relates that the Payne family lived at 212 Cascadilla Street from at least 1913 to 1931; Haley's family rented a room from them. Payne earned the rank of Flight Officer on April 15, 1945.

"A licensed pilot myself, I've always had a keen interest in aviation and special admiration for the men who flew combat missions as fighter pilots in World War II," says Campanella. "Using Ancestry and other databases, I was able to learn that Payne was an Ithacan, one of the first Blacks from Upstate New York to earn a pilot's license, and that he flew for the Tuskegee Airmen," Campanella says. 


Left: 212 Cascadilla Street was the birthplace of both Verdelle Louis Payne and Roots author Alex Haley, part of the rich cultural history of Ithaca's Northside neighborhood. photo / Patti Witten. Right: "Verdell L Payne" is listed as a resident in Mannings Ithaca Numerical Street Directory 1934.


The Tuskegee Airmen, comprised of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group, were the first African American military pilots in the United States Armed Forces. At the time, the American military was racially segregated, and many Black people were still subject to Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination, both inside and outside of the armed forces. Despite the times, the Tuskegee Airmen participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, begun in 1939, at Moton Field and attended Alabama's Tuskegee University.

Campanella partnered with Historic Ithaca to secure a New York State Historic Marker Grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation and honor Payne's contribution. A part of the Pomeroy Foundation's mission is to support the preservation of community history and since 2006, the foundation has underwritten more than 700 iconic blue and yellow historic markers seen on roadsides across the state. The birthplace marker at 212 Cascadilla Street will be installed later this fall.


Payne's birthplace marker will be installed alongside Roots author Alex Haley's at 212 Cascadilla Street in fall 2021. photo / courtesy of Historic Ithaca


Christine O'Malley, preservation services coordinator for Historic Ithaca, hopes the marker draws attention to Payne's World War II military service as a dignified member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. "We hope it compels people to think about the history of segregation in the armed forces, and to reflect more deeply on systemic racism in this nation. Sharing information through signage allows residents and visitors to learn about someone who once lived here and who had a direct connection to significant national and international events."

This is Campanella's second historical marker project. When teaching at UNC–Chapel Hill and living in Hillsborough, North Carolina, he led an effort to install a state marker commemorating the boyhood home of jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, who wrote "Take the A Train." 

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