This may sound more like a description of a totalitarian state, a lawless nation in remote Africa (or urban Africa), or maybe a Soviet-era Eastern European country. I've just been learning all about the atrocities suffered on the German-Russian front of WWII in Dan Carlin's "Ghosts From the Ostfront" podcast series, and how many of the Russian soldiers were fighting for a country that had imprisoned, tortured, and perhaps killed their own family members. WWII was an epoch of worldwide chaos, really, more than History Channel specials can ever express. As Carlin says, it seems sometimes as if the people alive and doing these things during the war were creatures unlike people of today, because how could such brutality have been carried out?
America has its own ghosts, which we often brush under the rug much as any other country, because who wants to remember how we forced Japanese-Americans out of their communities and into internment camps while we blasted a cultural homeland some of them had never even visited? Well the patriotic Japanese-Americans who lived through it sure want you to...
It can be easier to point to other countries and cultures and say, "But look at what they're doing to their own people! That's much worse than our past." But the problem here is the disconnect that exists between our history and what the average American knows about it; and the misinformation that runs rampant when you have sports coaches teaching your high school history classes. Our own people have also suffered under legislation that in hindsight seems unbelievable.
The United States had another demon from its WWII past that was finally given its proper recognition in 2007. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American pilots in the U. S. military, and they fought in the war in the south European and North African front, earning a stellar flight record with very small losses. Then they returned to a homeland that subscribed to Jim Crow traditions of discrimination and racism. In fact, although many of these pilots were even more extensively trained than their white counterparts (due to disbelief in their abilities), many of these men returned home and could not find employment in the commercial aviation field. Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson reported that he was treated better as a POW of Germany than he was treated in his own state of Mississippi. Read that again. Now remember that we're talking about the most brutal war in human history, which he willing went to fight for a segregated United States. And the most ironic and tragic thing of all: he had to fight even to earn that opportunity.
When war was looming, the United States military realized they had an entire segment of the population that it need to utilize, the African-American men and women who were ready and willing to serve. The "Tuskegee Experiment" that grew out of this was deemed a failure before it had even fully begun, as black men were literally seen to be incapable of handling the complicated process of flying a plane, as reported in the War College Report of 1925. Eugenics and other notions of a hierarchy of intelligence were rampant during the first few decades of the twentieth century, but it is somewhat shocking that they were still considered pertinent, influential--and, worst, of substance or truth--by the start of the second world war.
The Airmen had a lot to be proud of though, they fought their "Double V Campaign" (victory both on the war front and at home) with honor and tenacity; only one of the Vs came to fruition. And then for over half a century proper credit was not given. The pilots and their ground crew were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement by a decade or more. The men founded Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (TAI) in the early '70s and it continues to have annual conferences and has welcomed "torch-bearers" into their ranks to carry on the legacy of the Airmen and their stories. Several of the Airmen have written books (unfortunately when you search Amazon, top results are the 1995 Laurence Fishburne film...).
Bill Clinton, during his presidency, commissioned a national historic site to be established on Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala. where the men had done some of their training; that historic site opened in 2008. Several exhibits exist currently on various military bases around the South. And opening Nov. 17, 2009 is a traveling exhibit created by students in the Public History program at Kennesaw State University (I am one of those students) in partnership with the school's Museum of History and Holocaust Education and Tuskegee University. The coordinators of the Public History program, Drs. Dickey and Lewis, were the overseers of the entire project, and it has turned into our own little legacy. In 2007, President Bush awarded the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Medal of Honor, finally recognizing in the federal record books the amazing obstacles incurred and bravery maintained by all graduates of the Tuskegee aviation program during WWII. The honor also shed greater light on the legacy of TAI and the scholarships and public services they have provided since the group's inception.
I am proud to have been a part of curating this exhibit on the Airmen. "The Tuskegee Airmen: The Segregated Skies of WWII" is a traveling, collapsible exhibit consisting of ten panels that tell the story, with photos courtesy of Tuskegee University, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives. It opens Tuesday, Nov. 17 at the KSU Center, and will be on display there until Feb. 28, 2010. I am very excited about the opening, and some of the original Airmen from the Atlanta chapter of TAI will be attending. (As a side note, my mom made me an incredible black Donna Karen design dress. Perfection for a co-curator.) If you live in the area, stop by and see it. After that, it will be traveling to various schools and organizations; the Airmen even want to bring it to their annual conference next year. What an amazing thing to have as my own tiny legacy at KSU, one that will potentially reach 50,000 people over its lifespan, according to Dr. Catherine Lewis, the museum's director.
The Tuskegee Airmen waited a long to time to be acknowledged for their military service and impressive record in WWII. The United States has its own ghosts, but I like to hope in time, they can all be laid in the open and understood for their good and bad. I'm surprised by how many people I find who don't know who the Tuskegee Airmen were. I hope this exhibit inspires people through their story.