Inside the new Tuskegee Airmen National Museum inside the Charles H. Wright Museum.
Photo courtesy of the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum
As the first African American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces, the Tuskegee Airmen were a force to be reckoned with in the sky and on the ground during World War II and beyond.
With their bomber jackets, uniforms, bravery and megawatt smiles, they took to the sky decades earlier and flew throughout Europe and North Africa during their missions.
Young African Americans who wanted to become pilots back then, unsurprisingly, faced overwhelming challenges and racist notions that Black people could not learn to fly or operate sophisticated aircraft.
In 1938, with Europe on the edge of another war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced he would broaden the civilian pilot training program in the country.
That is where the activated Tuskegee Airmen came in and captivated the nation.
In even greater recognition of celebrating their heroic work more than 80 years later, the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum is now housed at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The museum, which was previously in Michigan’s Fort Wayne, moved to the Coleman A. Young Gallery inside the Wright Museum recently. The gallery is named after Detroit’s first Black mayor who was a Tuskegee Airmen second lieutenant, bombardier and navigator.
Its virtual grand opening on March 22 featured speeches by Airmen Lt. Col. Harry Stewart Jr. and Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson and a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Stewart, 96, of Bloomfield Township, spoke to The Michigan Chronicle about how as a WWII fighter pilot, he flew planes and escorted bombers to their targets in Europe.
“I spent seven years in Air Force flying fighters,” Stewart said, adding that he retired at age 63 and lived in Michigan the past 40 years but originally hailing from New York.
He added that the museum’s move to the Charles H. Wright Museum is a good one.
“I think it has become what you call a Class A museum, and I think it represents very well what the Tuskegee airmen have done during WWII,” he added. “I think all of this coalesces to become an excellent legacy and example for our youth in the area here.”
The National Museum of the Tuskegee Airmen represents the culmination of the efforts of many people. It provides a space not only to record the contributions of Americans to the defense of the country during a period in its history when they were not thought of as equal to other citizens but a place where all of the youth of America may come to gather knowledge, inspiration, counseling and assistance in achieving excellence in their own educational and career pursuits.
“We’re honored to have this important display of American and African American history here in the heart of Detroit,” Pamela Alexander, director of community development, Ford Motor Company Fund. “Ford Fund has been a long-time supporter of the Tuskegee Airmen and we are proud to continue to preserve and celebrate their legacy.”
Brian R. Smith, president, and CEO of the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum, is helping keep the legacy going. Under the tutelage of Tuskegee Airman Ralph Mason, he learned how to fly as a pilot and started flying in 1996.
He added that it is not very often that people meet a Black pilot and he’s hoping to change that trajectory.
“You rarely see Black pilots in uniform – flying for the Armed Forces or commercial airlines,” he said.
Smith said that while the museum does “a lot” the most important work they do is education with young people, especially underrepresented young people.
Smith said that today, there are fewer Black pilots in commercial and military aviation than there were combined during WWII.
“We are trying to increase the numbers of what we call underrepresented people in commercial aviation and military aviation,” said Smith, also an adjunct professor at Wayne County Community College.
The Tuskegee Airmen Museum has replicas and artifacts housed at the Wright Museum — part of the museum is also at the Detroit City Airport with airplanes that are museum quality, Smith said, adding that the “historic aircrafts” that flew with the Tuskegee Airmen help educate and tell an important story.
A plane that flew during WWII from Lake Huron will be recovered, too, sometime this summer and restored to add to the airport museum.
“The Tuskegee Airmen came to Selfridge National Guard Base (in Harrison Charter Township near Lake Huron) to complete their training,” Smith said. “Flights over terrain and the area here in Michigan was a good simulation for areas in France and Italy. They practiced coming in over the water up onto land and attacking targets like coastal radar stations [which looked for enemy ships].”
Smith said that two Tuskegee Airmen came here to train and crashed and perished over Lake Huron during WWII.
Smith also teaches aviation-related classes at Carver STEM Academy in Detroit and said that students are exposed early to aviation. Other programming through the museum teaches fifth–graders to college freshman how to become a pilot.
“We try to send our kids to college,” Smith said of helping students obtain a pilot license in the various programs. “We have programs here that teach youth and young adults how to fly an airplane — get them their pilots’ certificates.”
He added that in keeping with the times, flying drones, and obtaining a drone certificate, is also a lucrative and ever-increasing field.
“Drones are used in movies, law enforcement, fire departments,” he said, adding that real estate agents and the military use drones, too.
Smith said that the Tuskegee Airmen Museum and its partners encourage underrepresented people, in particular Black students, to think about a career in the field of aviation and not just as a pilot, but as air traffic controllers, electronic technicians and beyond.
“I am here to make physics real for the students and apply it to everyday life and let them know their ancestors the [enslaved] knew physics — physics is all about how you do work the faster,” Smith said.
Smith was inspired by his father, Rothacker Childs Smith Jr., who served his country as a medic and was a WWII prisoner of war. Smith, who was featured in The Michigan Chronicle in the mid-1940s for his service and returning home, lost his battle to COVID-19 in January.
“My dad fostered my love of flight,” he said.
For more information on the museum and aviation programming visit www.tuskegeemuseum.org.