WESTAMPTON – James Cotten was a member of the elite, all-black Tuskegee Airmen in the Army Air Corps, but his service to the country and its people extended far beyond active duty toward the end of World War II.
He made a career in the Air Force for 20 years and while spending the next 45 years working for the federal government as a Civil Service employee at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, he also became a member of federal credit unions to help employees in need.
At a posthumous ceremony attended by a dozen of his family members, a state senator, a Burlington County official, the Willingboro mayor and credit union colleagues Tuesday, the late retired Air Force Master Chief Sgt. James Cotten of Willingboro was honored with a new memorial scholarship in his name to be awarded to a high school student.
The James A. Cotten Sr. Memorial Scholarship will be offered by the ABCO Federal Credit Union (FCU) on whose board Cotten served for more than 20 years. He also was saluted in a New Jersey Senate resolution and a Burlington County Commission proclamation.
Richard Ghaul, board chairman of the Willingboro-based ABCO-FCU lending organization for members, said the scholarship will honor and reflect the exceptional contributions and values demonstrated by Cotten’s life and legacy with scholarship details to be released later.
"This scholarship will help young people achieve their educational goals so they can improve the world around them and contribute positively to their community,” said Ghaul.
“Jim had a wise and experienced voice of reason, helping us to make complex decisions. ... .and bringing trust and confidence in our credit union. He truly wanted people to be successful, so he made it his job to help them do well by giving his support and encouraging them to use every day as an opportunity to do great things."
Cotten passed away on Aug. 14, 2020 ,at age 93. He was drafted into the military in 1945 and afterward became an operations member of the Tuskegees' 332nd Fighter Group, nicknamed the “Red Tails,” which provided protection for bombers against enemy aircraft.
Tuskegee Airmen flew more the 15,000 individual missions in Europe and North Africa and their impressive performance earned them a more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses while helping to encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Cotten, who also raised 10 children and two grandchildren with wife Oteria of 73 years, had received other special honors in his lifetime.
After President Harry Truman ended segregation in the military by 1948, Cotten became the first African-American assigned to the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron as the non-commissioned officer in charge of air operations at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. And in 1962 he achieved the highest enlisted rank in the Air Force, earning the rank of chief master sergeant.
In 2012 he received the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to members of the all-Black flying unit in the military during and after World War II. The following year he was one of six Tuskegee Airmen invited to the White House and honored By President Barack Obama. In 2019, Cotten was named volunteer of the year by the New Jersey Credit Union League.
“He was intelligent, caring and loved his family first and loved his country. He was not a talker about the military and he didn’t worry about the prejudice,” said daughter Wannetta Jolly of Alexandria, Virginia.
Jolly was one of Cotten's six daughters to attend the ceremony Tuesday.
Those who knew Cotten said he had a philosophy he lived by daily and encouraged others to follow: “Today is another day to excel.”
Both the senate and county citations saluted Cotten for selflessly serving the nation while simultaneously overcoming racial discrimination and prejudice.
State Sens. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, and Joseph Cryan, D-Union, sponsored the resolution, approved by Senate vote in praise of Cotten and the Tuskegees.
Singleton said the written words give eloquence to his memory but are insufficient
"Let's not let his story end with a resolution. Let’s talk about him and tell his story of accomplishment to continue his legacy (to) inspire citizens of both this state and this nation for decades to come.”
In an interview several years ago Cotten told the Burlington County Times, “The Tuskegee Airmen made me a better person … God looked over me in the 332nd Fighter Group and that’s where I became a man.”
Terie Cotten of Arlington, Va., one of six of his seven daughters who came Tuesday, called the scholarship and accolades for her dad a wonderful acknowledgement of the little and the big things he did in his life.” Daughter Marlane Belford and her husband n Tyrone of Willingboro said the family was “so happy” and appreciative while her brother, Kevin of Voorhees, thanked all program speakers.
Other Cotten relatives in attendance Tuesday included: daughters Marlane Belford, of Willingboro; Terie Cotten of Arlington, Virginia; Christina of Moorestown; Arlene Hutton of Burlington City; and Lauren Cotten of Burlington Township; son Kevin Cotten of Voorhees; grandchildren Dustin Cotten of Deptford; Lynette Lewis of Palmyra and Camielle Munn of Burlington Township, and six-year-old great-grandson Weston Wilmer of Palmyra.