This week I took several men on a ride of remembrance as we explored the life and times of World War II.
Memphis had the opportunity of hosting this years Black Aviators Convention at the Cook Convention Center. The convention drew more than 1,500 black aviators from six organizations, including the Tuskegee Airmen,Inc.
Most people know the story of the Airmen now; of how they were hand-selected to become a fighter squadron during the time of segregation; of how they were sent to train at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; and, of how they valiantly performed in the air and on the ground.
But most people dont know much else. What about the men who trained the famous few?
What about the men before them and before the inception of the Institute who applied for pilot training at military institutions and were denied for various reasons but mostly their skin color? And what about the legacy that was left after the experiment of the Airmen was over?
"We were loyal Americans then. We had a love for our country and wanted to do our part in defending it," says Charles McGee, Tuskegee Airmen national president and former flyer. During his 30-year military flight career, McGee completed 409 missions and more than 6,000 hours of flying. McGee credits his training at Tuskegee for his many successes.
I was the last to leave. You can say I closed the gate on the Tuskege experiment, says Eldrige Williams, the Airmens former trainer.
During his days at the Institute, Williams was responsible for instructing cadets in physical education and survival training. He tells stories of his own pilot school experiences, including that of being a classmate of Clark Gables.
Williams quickly points out the opportunities that became available for Institute graduates. Pilots were able to enroll in military pilot schools, former Airmen became officers on several bases, and other pilot training programs were opened for black students.
Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen lost their lives in combat and were honored during a special memorial ceremony at the convention.
As their names and the names of other black aviators were read from a list, a lone serviceman stood and rang a bell after each name was given.
A hushed silence fell over the audience, and I could almost see the "Red Tail Angels" (the name given to the Airmens squadron and their red-painted plane tails) high in the sky, proudly serving their country and unknowingly blazing a trail for other black aviators.