Urbanist and historian Thomas J. Campanella, a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning, was researching a book when he first came across the name Verdelle Louis Payne.
Payne, who was born October 1, 1919, at 212 Cascadilla St. in Ithaca – also the birthplace of “Roots” author Alex Haley in 1921 – was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military pilots in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Campanella partnered with Historic Ithaca to secure a New York State Historic Marker Grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation to honor Payne’s contribution. The birthplace marker at 212 Cascadilla St. will be installed later this fall.
“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,” said Campanella, who says his work is about “telling places’ and excavating hidden or forgotten histories in the built environment.”
“Using Ancestry and other databases, I was able to learn that Payne was an Ithacan, one of the first Black people from Upstate New York to earn a pilot’s license, and that he flew for the Tuskegee Airmen,” Campanella said.
Payne earned the rank of Flight Officer on April 15, 1945. He served during World War II in the US Army Air Forces’ 99th Fighter Squadron.
The Tuskegee Airmen comprised the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group at a time when 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.
According to the History Center of Tompkins County, the Payne family lived at 212 Cascadilla St. from at least 1913 to 1931; Haley’s family rented a room from them.
Following the war, Verdelle settled in Mamaroneck, NY, where he lived until his death in 1985.
Campanella 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.
Christine O’Malley, preservation services coordinator for Historic Ithaca, hopes the marker draws attention to Payne’s World War II military service.
“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,” she said. “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 the University of North Carolina, 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.”
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.
Patti Witten is a writer for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.