Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Aviation History in Tuskegee

On our travels this summer we’ve driven several stretches of Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Highway, and when researching the topic, I was interested to learn there are honorary Tuskegee Airmen sections of interstate all over the US. We’ve got a section of Interstate 95 in Colleton County right here in South Carolina, near the Tuskegee Airman Memorial in Walterboro. However it was on our return trip from the Florida panhandle that we were really able to delve into this aspect of aviation history, with a stop at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama.
Tuskegee Airmen NHS Hangar #1

In the early 1900s, aviation was closed to African Americans, military aviation completely inaccessible. When Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act in 1939, they intended to generate large numbers of pilots who could quickly transfer into military aviation if needed. When programs were established in colleges around the country, they included six black colleges, thanks in part to the efforts of the National Airmen’s Association of America. One of those programs was at the Tuskegee Institute, 30 miles east of Montgomery, Alabama.

In May of 1940, the first class of CPT pilots completed their elementary flight training at Kennedy Field. After legislature such as the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 were passed, pressure from civil rights organizations and the press eventually led to the establishment of the segregated 99th Pursuit Squadron in January 1941. Tuskegee Institute’s Moton Field and Tuskegee Army Air Field were the only training facilities for African Americans throughout the war, and the achievements of the Squadron's pilots came despite continuing racism and segregation, in Tuskegee as well as at overseas bases.

There is a Park Service Jr. Ranger Program at the Historic Site to help children understand the exhibits

By the end of the war almost 1,000 pilots had been trained. Even more impressive is the number of African Americans trained for service in the US Army Air Corps… 17,000 men and women were schooled as mechanics, communications & electrical system specialists, armament specialists, medical technicians, cooks, clerks, parachute riggers, air traffic controllers, flight instructors, bombardiers and navigators. All are known today as Tuskegee Airmen.

Taking in the view from the control tower

Start your visit to Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Hangar #1 with a site orientation video and a look at two restored vintage airplanes and various exhibits. Continue on to Hangar #2 to see a wide assortment of artifacts and exhibits, including a replica P-51 Mustang. The initial Hangar #2 was destroyed by fire in 1989, but at the rear of the reconstructed hangar is the original Control Tower. Climb up to view where clearance to take off and land was given before stopping at the Bookstore for additional literature or a souvenir. Other structures onsite include the Cadet House, Army Supply Building, Auxiliary Storage Shed, Bath and Locker House, and the Skyway Club, the rec facility servicing all military ranks and civilians at the time.

The George Washington Carver Museum and Tuskegee Institute Information Center

While in Tuskegee, make sure to budget time to also explore Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site. It was here, in a repressive post-Reconstruction Alabama, that a celebrated university and symbol of African American achievement was born. Many of the buildings constructed while Booker T. Washington was president still stand, providing an architectural aspect to the history lesson. Both sites are free to the public; see websites for hours. Bottom line; the Tuskegee Airmen NHS provides valuable insight into our nation's history - military, civil rights, women's rights, aviation - as well as echoing the recurring theme of the last century: persistence and triumph in the face of racism and discrimination.

Tompkins Hall at Tuskegee Institute

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