I probably would not have known anything about the Tuskegee Airmen if my dad hadn’t had a lifelong fascination with all things aeronautical. He talked them up enough over the years that I knew the basics: an all-black squadron of pilots and support personnel in WWII who fought and died same as the whites they were segregated from by law and custom. My dad being in the Army Air Corps (non-combatant) at the same time must have known of them from way back, but I don’t know if he had even the slightest of interactions with them.
When I pulled off Highway 29 to visit the National Historic Site dedicated in 1998 (with a grand opening on October 10, 2008), I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were a half-dozen cars in the huge visitor lot, with RV spaces off to the left, so there was plenty of room for Bella, the Breeze, and me.
The walk downhill from the parking lot to the two hangars that house the exhibits shows off the airfield with two runways, the support buildings, and the surrounding low hills.
I could imagine the hustle of trainees and instructors, support crews, and even parachute folders, working hard every day in the war effort.
Most of the barracks and smaller buildings are no longer standing, so in their place are metal-framed outlines of each one, helping to establish a sense of how big the base was back in the 1940s.
Hangar One introduces the early phases of the Tuskegee Airmen story: recruiting and training. There’s a restored model of their primary training aircraft, along with informative displays of learning enemy ships and uniforms, as well as other areas they had to cover in preflight training.
Hangar Two unfurls the full, proud history of the Tuskegee Airmen, from battles in World War II to the medals awarded and the honors earned.
The displays are very frank about the other battle the Airmen fought: segregation at home. The film that is the starting point for Hangar Two doesn’t shy away from the hard point that as these people were flying to protect American bombers in Europe, they were denied entry into officers’ clubs on American soil.
The most moving part of the film was watching and listening to the old men who were pilots back then, talking about their training, their missions, their losses, and the cold fact of segregation in their daily lives during that period.
The exhibits discuss how, during and after the war, the Tuskegee Airmen helped immensely to clear the way for integration, from the Army Air Corps (later the Air Force) to daily life, as they became activists, businessmen, and even policemen.
The sense of history they made is illustrated best with this exhibit:
I’d kind of expected to breeze in and out of this site, but I ended up spending a few hours, reading every sign and looking at every artifact. My dad, once again, was right: the Tuskegee Airmen were heroes, both at war and at home.
We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the ‘help’ — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.
2015 Commencement Address at Tuskegee Institute