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Tuskegee Red Lands at Air and Space!

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During World War II, a group of young, enthusiastic and skilled African American men pressed the limits of flight and the boundaries of racial inequality by becoming Army Air Forces pilots. Most of these pilots trained at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. One of the most popular and beautiful plants of that region is a fiery red Crape Myrtle. Like the Tuskegee Airmen, whose characteristic red-tailed aircraft became their trademark, this Crape Myrtle was named for the city of Tuskegee. In an ongoing effort by Smithsonian Gardens to link ornamental horticulture to the many themes and exhibitions that are part of the National Air and Space Museum, this emblematic tree now adorns the grounds of the world’s most visited air museum.

Native to Asia, Crape Myrtles are known for their delicate yet robust blooms, thick canopies of glossy green leaves, vibrant fall color, and flaking bark which is a unique and attractive feature during the winter months. Large and heavy flowers explode from June to September making the Crape Myrtle one of the most popular and visible trees on the Smithsonian campus. The northernmost Plant Hardiness boundary for this tree is Zone 7a, extending from Baltimore through southern Illinois. Crape Myrtles are adaptable to many climates and are drought resistant, growing best in well-drained soils and full sun. Most of the Crape Myrtles on display at the Smithsonian, like the ‘Tuskegee,’ are cultivars selected from the United States National Arboretum’s renowned plant breeding program located in Washington, DC.


Smithsonian Gardens staff plant a ‘Tuskegee’ Crape Myrtle tree outside the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

The ‘Tuskegee’ Crape Myrtle tree (Lagerstroemia x ‘Tuskegee’), planted in May 2012 by Smithsonian Gardens staff at a National Air and Space Museum community horticulture education seminar, is located about 200 feet west of the Museum’s south entrance near the access ramp. It may seem a small gesture, but planting a tree to remember one of the most significant groups of WW II pilots and the social legacy that they represent to our nation is anything but trivial.

Spirt of Tuskegee

The “Spirit of Tuskegee” is on temporary display at the Udvar-Hazy Center until it is moved to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture where it will be placed on permanent display.

Visitors can view artifacts from the Tuskegee Airmen in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight gallery at the National Air and Space Museum and will also have an opportunity to view related exhibits at the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens on the National Mall near the Washington Monument in 2015. Included in the planned exhibits will be a PT-13 Stearman called the Spirit of Tuskegee flown in training by the Tuskegee Airmen at Moton Field during World War II. The Tuskegee Stearman is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center located in Chantilly, Virginia.

Dik Daso is curator of Modern Military Aircraft in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum

Brett McNish is a Supervisory Horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens

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2 thoughts on “Tuskegee Red Lands at Air and Space!

  1. Great man pass away but his footprints are on the moon human race and history will ever remember him so rest in peace the whole world love and respect yoyr memory

  2. I look forward to seeing the crape myrtle on my next visit!

    There are two groups of WWII pilots who haven’t gotten anything like the notice I think they deserve, one being the Tuskegee Airmen, the other being the Womens Air Service Pilots, both of whom challenged the predominant roles “society” had chosen for them, and had to push themselves through obstacles that white male pilots didn’t. I don’t think their personal struggles have ever been adequately portrayed in popular culture or history (or in museum exhibits, for that matter), and I hope the African American History & Culture museum can remedy that for the Tuskegee Airmen. Both they and the WASPs are dying off at an alarming rate, and with them a lot of rich and important personal stories about their lives & times. I could easily imagine, for instance, an Air & Space exhibit on the WASPs, with ex-WASPs themselves serving as docents–assuming they’re able physically, and assuming enough of them in the DC area to be available. As far as I’m concerned, their “untold” stories are still largely untold, and I would love for Air & Space to remedy that in some way.

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