People often ask me how I find the stories I highlight on this blog. Actually, the real question is how do I not have MORE stories posted to this blog, because there are just so many. I’m always coming across new ones, and I just can’t keep up!
So, I thought it might be instructive (yeah, sorry, I’m a teacher at heart) on this last day of Women’s History Month to post an unfinished, rather meta post about how I find stories, research and then turn them into blog posts.
Today’s very unfinished but tantalizing story is about Edith Cheatham Smith.
I learned about her last month at Ossining Village Historian Joyce Sharrock Cole’s exhibit at Bethany Arts Community.
One of the many fascinating people Cole highlighted was Major Archie Smith, who would marry Edith in 1946. Texas-born Smith was a graduate of Tuskegee University in Alabama, and a Flight Commander at the Tuskegee Institute during WWII. After the war, he worked as an instructor for Zahn’s Flying Service in Amityville, Long Island, and then went on to found Warhawk Aviation Service (based at the Westchester Airport) in the 1950s. He was its president until his death in 1966.
He would meet Edith in 1946 when she joined his flying club and “personally taught her to fly.”
Okay, wait, WHAT? How many women were learning to fly in the 1940s?
Joyce Cole’s exhibit on the Smiths included this snippet on Edith:
“After two years in night school at NYU, Edith decided to go overseas during WWII with the American Red Cross. She was stationed in MTO (Mediterranean Theater of Operations) with the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy.”
Let’s learn more, shall we?
First, I reached out to someone local who I thought might be related – they are, but not closely, so couldn’t add anything (yet) to Edith’s story.
Next, I turned to Ancestry.com, my go-to starting point. Now, you can pay a lot of money for full access, or you can use the free version and access things like the US census which gives you lots of interesting and surprisingly detailed information.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Edith Cheatham was born in Virginia in 1917. In about 1924, her parents moved up to Ossining, and in the 1930 census we find the family living at 59 Durston (now Hunter) Street. Her father was a carpenter who had his own business, and her mother was busy raising Edith and her six siblings.
Edith attended Ossining High School, graduating in 1936. Here’s what she was doing at OHS and what she hoped to do with her life:
I also learned that Edith was in the National Honor Society, a fairly new addition to OHS:
Finally, I’m including this excerpt from the Class Prophecy of that year because in it we learn that OHS had a radio station and that Edith was a talented singer. (There’s also some other fun stuff surrounding her information, like “Victor Biondino’s lecture to housewives on ‘What Makes a Good Lunch.'” Indeed!)
Now, according to the 1940 US census, Edith was still living at home and working as a clerk. (Where? I wonder.) At some point in the ‘40s, she volunteered for the Red Cross and got sent to Italy where she was stationed with the 332nd Fighter Group.
A brief aside on the 332nd Fighter Group — this was comprised of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a pioneering group of Black aviators who fought in WWII.
The Tuskegee Airmen were so called because they trained at Tuskegee University in Alabama. As the Tuskegee University website says: “Tuskegee University was awarded the U.S. Army Air Corps contract to help train America’s first Black military aviators because it had already invested in the development of an airfield, had a proven civilian pilot training program and its graduates performed highest on flight aptitude exams.”
At first, the mission of the 332nd was to escort bombers who were dropping bombs in southern Europe. But by February 1944, they were flying combat operations of their own, not just accompanying bombers.
Again, from the Tuskegee University website:
“The Airmen’s success in escorting bombers during World War II – having one of the lowest loss records of all the escort fighter groups, and being in constant demand for their services by the allied bomber units is a record unmatched by any other fighter group.”
Read more about the Tuskegee Airmen here
Back to Edith — in 1944, she is over in Italy supporting the men of the 332nd. While the US Archives has documents pertaining to the Red Cross during World War II, unfortunately none of them are digitized, so I couldn’t do a search to learn more about what her life might have been like during this time.
I did, however, come across this thesis by Julia Ramsey on Red Cross Volunteers during WWII, which offers some information about what the Red Cross volunteers did. It makes for some interesting reading if you’re so inclined.
Perhaps Edith worked in a Clubmobile truck, delivering coffee and donuts to men on the lines. Perhaps she assisted in a base hospital. Perhaps she was stationed at the Red Cross Club at the 332nd base. Maybe she even snuck onto a plane on a covert mission to photograph future bombing sites. (Things like this ARE documented!) But whatever her specific activities were, they involved courage and resourcefulness.
In January 1946, she’s listed on the ship’s manifest of the USS General W.P. Richardson, departing Naples, Italy and arriving in New York. So, I guess she was overseas for about two years? And that she stayed there for several months after the end of the war. I hope she had an opportunity to explore.
More sleuthing uncovered her October 1946 marriage certificate to Archie Smith. Interestingly, they married in Babylon, NY which is right next door to Amityville, where Archie was working as a flight instructor at the famed Zahn’s Flying Service. (And whether she knew him from working with the Tuskegee Airmen overseas, or met him after the war is still an unknown to me.)
In 1966, Archie and Edith were living on Batton Road with their three children in Croton-on-Hudson, and Archie was the founder and president of Warhawk Aviation, a private plane service based at the Westchester County Airport. (I know this because I found his obituary from that year.)
Edith would move to Mesa, Arizona at some point and pass away in 2007.
So that’s all very interesting as far as it goes, but I want to know more about the 18-year-old girl who wrote “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” in her yearbook. What inspired her to learn to fly? And head into the middle of a World War? And what was her life like after she returned home? Did she keep flying? Did she keep singing?
Here’s where we see how historical facts only give you a basic narrative – there’s so much more to this story that I still haven’t uncovered. And here’s where the human part enters. Unless I stumble upon Edith’s personal journal, or a trove of correspondence, I can only learn the rest from the recollections of others. And these recollections will no doubt be influenced by time and respect and, likely, the very understandable desire to tell a good, positive story.
I think it’s important to keep all this in mind when considering history in general. As we learn new facts, histories – stories — should change. The histories we learned in grade school should and must be updated as new information is uncovered (Thomas Jefferson, I’m looking at you!) Plus, the histories we tell are inevitably grounded in the present from which they are told.
So perhaps it’s fitting to end Women’s History Month with this story of a non-celebrity, a “regular” woman, who nonetheless lived a remarkable life. One that should be remembered because these (to me) are the most inspirational stories. If she could do what she did in the 1940s – learn to fly, volunteer overseas on the battlefield – what’s stopping the rest of us?