I would like to think that I’ve always known the inspirational story of the Tuskegee Airmen—the groundbreaking pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group. (The first African American military aviators in the racially segregated armed forces during World War II, whose bravery both in the air and on the air field lead to Truman signing Executive Order 9981 desegregating the armed forces in 1948).
Sadly, when I started at the National Air and Space Museum almost eight years ago, I did not. The first family program I produced, African American Pioneers in Aviation, had for many years featured the Tuskegee Airmen. Since I had limited time to develop a new program, I continued the tradition—and fell in love.
I have invited them to every African American family day since then and have been inspired by their stories. I also have stories about them. There are too many to tell all, but here are few. One year, we had NASA astronaut Col. Alvin Drew as a featured speaker. The Tuskegee Airmen decided that they wanted to hear him speak. I ran ahead to ask visitors if they minded giving up their seats for the Airmen. Not only did they give up their seats without question, but one gentleman took off his hat, held it to his heart and said “it gives me chills to see them here listening to the astronaut.” Another year, a featured speaker was former astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space. One of the Tuskegee Airman asked if I thought they could meet Dr. Jemison. Of course I immediately escorted them to her, and I cannot tell you who was more excited about the meeting.
This last story speaks to what is so good and true about these men. They did their jobs with bravery and a special type of courage—the will to succeed when so many people assume you will fail just because of the color of your skin. Yet, they are often modest about their accomplishments; although generous in sharing their time and memories with those who want to hear of them.
I invite you to learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen. Come visit the Pioneers of Flight exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, or visit the online version. Here you will learn about the early African American aviators who paved the way for the Tuskegee Airmen, and about the importance of their legacy. Or, you can try out an online interactive and fly a mission with the Airmen. Want to meet some actual Tuskegee Airmen? Come to the National Mall Building on Saturday, February 11, 2012 or to the Udvar-Hazy Center, on Saturday, February 24, 2012 for African American Pioneers in Aviation Family Day.
The National Air and Space Museum’s African American Family Days are part of the Heritage Family Day Series, sponsored by Northrop Grumman Corporation.
Mychalene Giampaoli is the family programs coordinator for the National Air and Space Museum’s Washington, DC building.