Updated, April 14 - Please click on the links to your left to read more documents containing more Tuskegee Airmen history, courtesy of Ron Brewington, former national public relations officer of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (TAI) and a member, of Harry A. Sheppard Research Team of TAI.
As the famous Tuskegee Airmen age, they are trying to pass on not only their unique history, but also their drive and courage to today’s youth.
"We live in a different America today. We need to acknowledge the changes," said Tuskegee Airman Val Archer, a past president of the Atlanta Chapter. "People need to recognize today there are different opportunities, and we need to have different goals — space, technology, new age ventures. We need to find the challenges today to make the world better."Members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the black World War II soldiers who broke the Air Force’s color barrier, visited Good Hope Baptist Church Saturday afternoon to share their history and personal stories.
While Archer told the youth to look to the future, he also called them to remember the past — a past that would better represent their heritage. For the first time, Archer said, authors were beginning to tell some of the World War II stories of the era black soldiers and residents. Included in the resident group are the blacks who suffered persecution in Germany.
"There was a black Holocaust in Germany too. They expected to kill all blacks around the world," Archer said.
Bridging the gap between the past and future is a tough challenge, one the Airmen attempt to tackle through numerous youth programs, including their ACE Camp, which starts in June. The deadline for the one week camp is May 1. For more details visit atlantchaptertuskeegeairmen.com.
"We need to recruit younger people to work with the Tuskegee Airmen," said Gregory Grant, a torchbearer of the Atlanta chapter.
Col. Lou Jenkins told the few youth in the audience that attitude, not aptitude, was the key to success. Using himself as an example, Jenkins talked about his love for aviation. However, during testing it was determined he didn’t have 20/20 vision, a requirement to be a lead pilot. He was offered the role of a backseat radar navigator, but he decided instead to go into missiles. The only black member of a five-person crew, Jenkins worked in missiles for more than 20 years.
Because of his hard work and skill, Jenkins and his team was selected to launch a missile, something, ironically, many missile service members never get to do. Jenkins said in his day he was privy to much top-secret information, including the development of the U-2 high-flying spy plane. He said he was the first and only black person to work in the program. During his years of military service, Jenkins said he got the chance to travel around the world and make a lot of money, because he never had to spend any of his earnings.
One of the most popular questions asked by audience members didn’t deal with the war, but rather with the reception and treatment the black airmen received when they returned home. Archer said one of the first things they noticed was the "colored" and "white" exit signs that still existed. When looking for employment, soldiers were still faced with separate want ads for "whites" and "Negroes."
"Some ads stressed do not apply if you’re a Negro. We flew so many sorties, over 15,000 during the course of 18 months. We had a lot of experience for young people. But America was not a nice place for black people in the 1930s and 40s. They didn’t care how much experience you had in the way," Archer said, commenting that the first black commercial airline pilot wasn’t hired until well after World War II, in 1964.
The Rev. Thomas Bristow, Atlanta chapter public affairs member, recalled applying for a job and being passed over for a white person who didn’t even apply, but simply walked in to the store. He recalled being forced to sit in the back of the bus and not being allowed on the dance floor of certain clubs.
Jenkins said a black two-star general, a higher ranking officer, cautioned Jenkins about retiring, saying, "the jobs don’t just come."
An audience member asked the airmen why they fought for a country that didn’t appreciate them. That’s one of the most popular questions the airmen get asked, Jenkins said.
"This is our country. If we didn’t fight, we wouldn’t have advanced," Jenkins said. "Despite all of its imperfections, this country is still the greatest in the world.
It was the efforts of groups like the Tuskegee Airmen that helped spur the civil rights movement into action. The 450 fighter pilots, 965 total air force crewmen participated in 15,551 combat sorties and completed 1,578 missions, according to a video. Their success led to black pilots being trained to fly larger, more complex planes like bombers — a reversal of the army’s race policy.
"The Tuskegee airmen were the tip of the civil rights spear," said Samuel Jones, Atlanta chapter events coordinator.
No concrete number exists for the total number of airmen living, but there are only 299 documented original airmen still living who are members of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. However, more than 425,000 black Americans now serve in the armed forces.