Tuskegee Airmen Atlanta Chapter...
perspectives on history
By Beth Volpert Johansen
Dr. Carter Woodson (1875-1950), the father of Negro History Week - which later became Black History Month-provided a legacy of learning through the observance of history in context. He is quoted as saying, “What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”
Within the context of history, come myriad stories of ordinary people who sought change as a matter of survival and to better the lives of those who would come after them.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen that is found in books, magazines, and movies is set solidly in type or film. Their legacy is that of another chapter, a living history perpetuated by a dedicated organization of men and women who come from varied backgrounds and races. They are the members of the current chapters of Tuskegee Airmen.
The Atlanta Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, was founded in August of 1976. Their website (http://atlantatai.org) states, “We are an education and community service organization dedicated to maintaining the traditions of the Tuskegee Airmen and preserving the legacy of the first generation of African American military aviators of the Second World War.” The site goes on to describe the need “to actively inspire and support minority youth to outstanding achievement and leadership in our global society.” With such a tall order comes a responsibility to not only reach all youth, but to grab their attention amidst the distractions of the digital world.
Four members of the Tuskegee Airmen met for lunch recently and shared their perspectives on the challenge to engage minority youth in a manner that teaches the lessons of history and gives them a basis for a successful future. One member, Val Archer, who happens to be a DOTA (Documented Original tuskegee Airman), offered an explanation for why he feels the lessons of his past are relevant to young people today. “Our kids need a place to begin,” says Val. “The first tough barrier is the idea that they, as individuals, can actively develop skills.” He goes on to describe his own life as a deep hole from which it took tremendous effort and years to dig up and out. “The culture so many of our kids come out of they don’t even have relatives or members of the community who understand the language of current technology.” Without support for learning in today’s technology-laden society, the future is uncertain for many.
The kind of technology to which Mr. Archer refers is centered around a buzz term - S.T.E.M.. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are now blended into a more cohesive learning experience and methodology that is often a foreign concept to parents and grandparents who are raising children. “We target those S.T.E.M. programs by going into schools and engaging students with all aspects of aviation,” says Piper Burks, ATI Treasurer. “We have an Aviation Program called TAACT (Tuskegee Airmen Aviation Career Training) that offers kids an orientation into career opportunities that involve aviation.” Not only do the Airmen offer orientation to aviation, they offer real-life stories of how aviation applies to the lives of students today and historically. “We give them something to build on for those who get the opportunity to become civil pilots, grounds crew, maintenance, and flight crew,” says Ms. Burks. “We are still evolving into where we think we can maximize our experiences and inspire future generations to pick up the torch.”
Inspiring future generations was great upon the mind of Gwinnett resident and community leader, L.C. Johnson, when he retired from a 20 year Air Force career. After completing his first career, he became an educator. He joined the Sacramento, CA chapter of TAI in 1969 and has remained a member in each place he has lived. As a former educator, Mr. Johnson understands the strains under which minority youth attend school and live their lives. With regard to the current state of race relations and how it affects all youth, Mr. Johnson says, “We have a black problem; we have a white problem-those running the country - they are in the middle.”
Finding a way, a path to change the current state of minority students has never been easy. For Airman Edgar (Ed) V. Lewis, the path seems hardly different than his own had been when he pushed the limits and learned to fly. “I believe if the kids could see what we have accomplished, they would see why I’ve worked with youth my whole life,” says Lewis. “The Tuskegee Airmen paid such a sacrifice and it started with civil disobedience.” He goes on to describe a career of gently pressuring those around him in the different bases to which he was assigned to accept him, his family, his culture, and his race. “I worked at it with what I had,” says Lewis. “I instill in kids that I’m not here trying to get you to make the military a career; you need to put something between the ears.” His method to a good job includes education-not just the kind in school, but learning to learn in all situations. His own civil disobedience never included violence. “We always want to change something, but we never fix what’s broke,” says Lewis. “One thing that is constant with me is that my family spent T-I-M-E with me and I spent it with my kids and my kids spend it with theirs.” It is why he believes that spending time with the young generations, telling his own story and engaging them in all aspects of aviation will make a huge difference. After all, airplanes and flight have captured the active minds of children for decades.
“What are we going to ‘hand-me-down’?” asks Val Archer. “We need to pay a lot more attention to the structure of the family unit that is incubating this generation so that by age 12, they are not worried about being incarcerated instead of whether they should go to college or join the military.” Mr. Archer’s words are absorbed by the others gathered around the table with nods and solemn faces. These people are worried about the next generation and the next. Ed Lewis adds his comments, “With a free society, it is most difficult to effect change; we in America are in need of great change.” He goes on to say, “Until, we as a country, come together as black and white and try to rectify the system and not just fight each other, the situation will not change.” L.C. Johnson nods and agrees with Piper Burks who says, “It’s an American problem; basically, we need each other to look for the good in one another, not the color.”
The Atlanta Chapter TAI states, “Our initiatives are for our community outreach, our youth and youth programs and our educational fund. We collaborate with corporations and organizations to promote careers in aviation. The Atlanta Chapter has accepted the challenge to continue the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Keeping those goals in mind, a small group of citizens can and do make a difference daily in their struggle to effect change in the world. They all agreed that the problem was no longer only a black or a white problem, it is an American problem. The difficulties faced today are as complicated as they have ever been, but in the context of history, they are no less important. This particular group of Tuskegee Airmen will continue to provide a glimpse into the past for the youth of today, both black and white, in the spirit of the airmen and women who came before them with the courage to engage in civil disobedience in the name of what is right for the future of all Americans.