Cyril O. Byron deployed by sea to Europe on his 23rd birthday, April 15, 1943. He estimated more than 200 men, who would later become known as the Tuskegee Airmen, were onboard, along with other troops. But the Airmen were the only Black soldiers on the ship, and they were all housed downstairs as the craft zig-zagged across the ocean, avoiding German submarines. Byron ate hard boiled eggs, toast, and coffee—all his stomach could hold down during the eight day cruise from New York to Casablanca in North Africa.
One year earlier, the campus mailman had delivered Byron’s draft notice personally, while the sophomore strolled across Morgan State College’s campus with his girlfriend, Freda Jefferson. A certified jock, he played fullback, then quarterback on Morgan’s football team, ran the quarter-mile in track, and played guard—all on an athletic scholarship. Byron had grown up in the Bronx, the fourth of six children born to Cyril and Blanche Byron, early 1900s immigrants from the West Indies.
In his early years, Byron went by “Bill” to avoid being teased at school; he later changed his middle name to “Osbourne” because he didn’t like his given name, “Osmond.”
During WWII, Byron was an armorer in the 99th Fighter Squadron, working to the motto, “We keep ‘em flying.” One of 8-10 crewmen assigned to a single fighter aircraft, armorers were specially trained to maintain the aircraft and its weaponry, Byron told Bea Scott, a digital publishing consultant with Heritage Makers, Inc., for his storybook.
After returning from overseas, Byron married Freda Jefferson on July 10, 1945. He was honorably discharged and re-enrolled at Morgan in September. Byron made good use of his G.I. Bill benefits: he earned a B.S. in chemistry in 1947 from Morgan; a masters from NYU in 1952; and his PhD in Science Education from Temple in 1974.
Byron considered the government-funded education as payback for all the hardships he endured in the Army. “Maybe one day it would get better,” used to be Byron’s response when Italian men asked why he was fighting for his country during WWII. “There was no way, in those days we were praying that we would see what we see now: an African American president of these United States…and the white folks still don’t like it,” Byron said in a 2014 interview.
Byron worked four years as a Port Authority traffic officer in New York’s Holland Tunnel after finding no opportunities as a research chemist, according to Scott’s storybook. Byron briefly taught at Fort Valley State College in Georgia before joining the faculty of Baltimore’s Coppin State College in September 1953, where he taught chemistry, physical science and math, and coached the basketball team. Byron later headed the science department, and eventually became Dean of Education before leaving Coppin in 1976 for the Community College of Baltimore.
Byron kept in shape working part-time as a football and basketball referee. He prided himself as one of the first Black NCAA Eastern Region football referees, sporting the sole white cap on the field. Despite his many professional accomplishments, hall of fame and board appointments, civic and church honors, Byron simply described himself as a jock who, even at 80, regularly ran two miles at a nearby high school track. In his storybook, Dr. Byron stated, “I attribute my successes and accomplishments in life to strong family ties and spiritual faith.”
Jerry Burton, President of The East Coast Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen called Dr. Byron’s death a great personal loss, “He greeted me as a true friend and he loved being a part of TAI .” Burton said the chapter has lost five original Airmen in 2015: “I never imagined, as an Air Force retiree, I would have heroes calling me…I was honored to have known them and am sad to be losing them at this stage.”
Dr. Cyril O. Byron died at his son’s home on Oct. 20 at the age of 95. Services for Dr. Byron will be held on Nov. 6 at the Church of the Holy Trinity, 2300 W. Lafayette Ave., Baltimore, Maryland; family and friends will be greeted at 10 a.m., service at 11 a.m.