By Caleb Bissinger
Between 1942 and ’46, 992 African Americans trained to fly planes for the U.S. Army Air Forces on a 5,300-foot strip of asphalt in Tuskegee, Ala. “Black Wing Men,” the Luftwaffe called them; U.S. bombers preferred “Red-Winged Angels.” The Tuskegee Airmen were heroes in the Mediterranean theater, notching 1,578 missions and nearly 16,000 sorties, but they returned home second-class citizens.
Yesterday, Donald Elder, a Tuskegee Airmen crew chief, took the stage before a full Rosse Hall to share memories of his service and chart the role of the Airmen in the history of desegregation. He was joined by Edward Morast, a retired technical sergeant and president of the Ohio Memorial Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.; Stanley Lee Landrum, whose career in the Air Force spanned 25 years and earned him the silver and bronze service medals; and Master Sergeant Harold Wesley.
Student Lectureships and the Black Student Union co-sponsored the event, which was moderated by Lydia Winkler ’13. Winkler has been researching the nation’s first all-black flying unit as part of her American Studies senior project. That research hinges on a persistent question: “How [were] these men ﾅ able to fight for a country that repeatedly rejected them?” she asked in her opening remarks.
“If you stop and think about it, going back to those days, we didn’t have any rules or laws to lean on,” Elder told the Collegian before Wednesday’s event. “We had done the kind of things that any other American would have done without any expectation of fanfare. However, we weren’t recognized for our accomplishments. ﾅ We had to be impressive, more than anything else.”
Of the Army’s attitude toward blacks, Elder recalled his time at Indiana’s Camp Atterbury, a training base that doubled as a camp for 5,000 German prisoners of war. African-American soldiers slept outside in tents; POWs got the barracks.
The Army was desegregated in 1948 ﾗ one year after Jackie Robinson put on a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and six years before Brown v. Board of Education ﾗ but reality lagged behind law. “It wasn’t segregation,” Morast said of his early years in uniform. “But I knew it was something called racism.”
Still, Landrum, a native of Columbus, Ohio who joined the Air Force in 1956, said: “If it wasn’t for the Tuskegee Airmen, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
The event opened with a documentary featurette, a companion to the 2012 film Red Tails, and closed with questions from the audience, some premeditated and others organic. When one student asked for a piece of wisdom, Elder responded with an affirmation of education, so that “when the time comes and it’s your chance to be a Tuskegee Airman, you’re ready.”
On the subject of heroes, Landrum offered this testament: “Top of the pole would be my God. Second would be the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Wednesday’s event was a topic of discussion at Sunday’s Student Council meeting, where the co-chairs of the Business and Finance Committee (BFC) voiced concern that money allocated to Student Lectureships was directly benefiting Winkler’s comps exercise, giving her a fiscal advantage over fellow majors.
“We wanted to clarify,” Student Council President Faith McDuffie ’14 said, “the nature of the event that Student Lectureships proposed to BFC.” On Tuesday, McDuffie and representatives from Student Lectureships and the BFC met with Director of Student Activities Christina Mastrangelo, Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff and Dean of Students Hank Toutain.
“Through that conversation,” McDuffie said, “we had the understanding that this was not her comps presentation, which helped make us feel better because that was what we were most concerned about.”
Toutain declined to comment as further discussions may take place between the BFC and Student Lectureships.
“There are always lots of partnerships between student groups and academic departments,” McDuffie added. “I think Student Council and students in general and the BFC have a responsibility to want to bring ﾅ speakers to campus. It helps enlighten the overall campus community.”