Ralph Vernon Claytor

September 12, 1923 - October 10, 1993

Lucy Addison High School of  Roanoke, Virginia

Class of 1940

Ralph Vernon Claytor was born 12 September 1923, first of the second set of J.B. Claytor children (those born in the new house), attended school in the Roanoke Public Schools augmented by the various Tennessee programs when he was living with his grandparents.  He graduated from Lucy Addison High School in 1940 where he lettered in basketball and football.  The basketball team made it to the state finals before being eliminated.  He started college at Hampton Institute, the only child to choose his father's alma mater and chose auto mechanics as his major.  He had already started learning the service station business from working at the Claywood Service Station on Gilmer Avenue on the same block of property purchased by his father in the late teens or early twenties.

World War II would interrupt his education in late summer 1943 and he joined his older brothers in uniform to serve his country.  Ralph was fortunate enough to have the aptitude, perfect eyesight, quickness of reflexes and other requirements to qualify for flight training.  A pattern of mysterious diseases such as "disappearing epilepsy" (a flight surgeon's manufactured excuse to reject black pilots) had been reversed in 1941 under a directive of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the War Department to create a black flying unit.   The famous Benjamin O. Davis was in the first class assigned to Tuskegee Army Air Field where black civilian pilots had begun training in 1939.  

Ralph became one of less than 1,000 black pilots who received their wings during World War II.   His family received him on furlough in awe, admiration and apprehension. They were proud of his accomplishments and he looked handsome in his leather bomber jacket.  The leather jacket, flight suit and oxygen mask were more intimidating  and always there was the fear that Mama would receive one of the triangular-folded flags that had draped a coffin, like some of our neighbors and friends.   The family's prayers were answered, for when Ralph completed flight training, the military brass reached a decision not to send any new personnel overseas, as the war was nearing a foreseeable end.   He was discharged in 1946.

Ralph completed his studies at Hampton Institute which had been interrupted by the war, following which he completed a B.S. in Business and Accounting at American University in Washington, D.C.   He lived with his sister Roberta, her husband Jack and Jack's parents.   While in Washington, he hybridized his 1951 Ford into a Fordilac by substituting a Cadillac engine for the existing one, which was later characterized as "a wolf in sheep's clothing".

Upon his return to Roanoke, Ralph began the full-time operation of the Claywood Esso Service Station on Gilmer Avenue, the first black to have an Esso franchise.   He expanded it to owning a second branch on 11th Street N.W.   He was also a Business Manager for the family clinic.   Finding reliable help was always a problem operating the service stations and work hours for Ralph were long and hard.   The original service station was closed after urban renewal shifted business and traffic from the Gainsboro area.   After a few years, he gave up his work as a mechanic (he was an excellent one) and independent business man and served as CEO of Gemco Manufacturing Company which manufactured electrical wiring harnesses for General Electric Corporation.  He later served as Comptroller of Edgemeade, Incorporated, a private multi-state Testing Group for Emotionally Disturbed Children, before forming his own accounting firm, Ver-Fay, Incorporated which he maintained in Roanoke with offices in the Claytor Memorial Clinic Building.

Reprinted from Virginia Kaleidoscope, The Claytor Family of Roanoke, and Some of Its Kinships, From First Families of Virginia and Their Former Slaves .  Copyright 1994, by Margaret Claytor Woodbury and Ruth Claytor Marsh.    


The Tuskegee Airmen Class Roster

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Tuskegee Airman

3332nd Fighter Group

Captain Ralph Vernon Claytor

332nd Fighter Group

United States Army Air Corps