Yenwith Whitney’s Historic Career
When 18-year-old new yorker yenwith whitney was sent to Tuskegee, AL, for military training in 1943, he was entering several new worlds. First, he was leaving childhood to join the military in wartime. Second, he was learning to fly, then an unlikely dream for African Americans. Third, the young black man from the Bronx was joining an all-black community for the first time.“My first real experience with black kids was living in the army air corps,” Whitney said. “It was my first profound exposure to being part of a group that was exclusively black.” Whitney’s parents had moved to a suburban neighborhood for better schools and safer streets in the 1920s, so Whitney grew up going to a predominantly white school and local church.
Growing up, he loved to tinker with mechanical things and was delighted to receive a model-airplane kit for a birthday. He built the plane, flew it, and promptly fell in love with flying. But “it never crossed my mind that I could be a pilot. That was an impossibility.”
Yet war needs intervened. The army air corps began training black military pilots at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1941. Whitney applied for and was ecstatic when he was accepted for pilot training. Joining the group that later became famous as the Tuskegee Airmen was one of the highlights of his life. “We were very close,” he said. “It was a life and death experience.”
Whitney’s life had changed profoundly. “I went into the army air corps and did something I wanted to do tremendously-I wanted to fly-and I was successful. That set me apart in both black and white society. And that had a tremendous impact on me.”
Whitney flew 34 combat missions as a fighter pilot escorting heavy bombers in Europe before the war ended. He wanted to study engineering and worked hard to pass the MIT entrance exam. His acceptance to the Institute was another turning point in his life.
Whitney translated his love of flying into aeronautical engineering studies and earned his bachelor’s in 1949. He worked first for Republic Aircraft on stress analysis, then for EDO on structural design of aircraft floats. With his wife, Muriel, he made a decision to venture into another new world.
“In 1956, at our church, I heard about the need for math and science teachers in Africa. I wasn’t particularly enchanted with working on aircraft floats at that time. So I said to my wife, who was working in the New York City Welfare Department, Why don’t we go to Africa?’ And she said, Okay.”’
The Whitneys spent a year and a half in a Paris suburb learning French. Then in 1958, they and their two young daughters headed for the strife-ridden French colony of Cameroon as missionaries for the Presbyterian Church. The Whitneys taught at the first school in that nation that provided secondary education for African boys and girls. And their daughters Saundra and Karen attended the mission school during the difficult civil-war years. When the country became independent in 1961, some of Dr. Whitney’s students became the political leaders of the young, independent nation of Cameroon.
In 1967, the family returned to New York, and Whitney continued working for the United Presbyterian Church in minority education and international education, in the U.S. and Asia as well as Africa. In 1980 he was appointed liaison with Africa, in which capacity he worked with local churches, councils, schools, and hospitals in more than 20 African countries. During his 35 years with the church, he earned a master’s degree in math education and a doctorate in international education from Columbia University.
After his retirement in 1992, Whitney moved to Sarasota, FL, with his wife Lorenza, whom he married after his first wife died in 1978. His participation in church affairs and MIT activities remains extensive. For the church, he has led study tours to Malawi, Madagascar, and South Africa. He also co-led a six-week series on Racism and White Privilege at the First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota and wrote articles on Africa for the national church’s World Update.
For MIT, he has served on the board of directors of the MIT Club of Southwest Florida, as an educational counselor, and as president of the Black Alumni Association of MIT, more commonly referred to as Bamit (bamit.org).
“When I went to MIT, I was well treated and had a good experience in the dormitory, the fraternity, and in intramural sports,” he said. “Yet there were only three other black students when I was at MIT, which is why I became so interested in Bamit. I think Bamit is a very important part of MIT and extremely important for black students.” Organized in the 1970s, Bamit provides professional and personal growth opportunities for African-American students and alumni.
Yenwith Whitney, like a lot of MIT alumni, has followed his own path to achieve his goals. From the historic accomplishments of the Tuskegee Air Corps to his volunteerism for both the Institute and his neighborhood church, Yenwith Whitney is leading a life that makes a difference. -Nancy DuVergne Smith