Mom and I made plans to visit the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Site on our way home from our family visit to Georgia via Alabama as part of a vow to see as many historical sites in the American South as we can now that we are living in Pensacola. Tuskegee, Alabama was one of our first places to visit, and after an early start from my cousin's house in Douglasville, GA, Mom and I arrived at Tuskegee about 11 a.m. on August 1.
Our first stop was the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Site. Located on Route 81 in the middle of the huge Tuskegee National Forest, this fascinating piece of African-American history is not to be missed when visiting the State of Alabama.
There was not anyone in the parking lot when Mom and I arrived at Moton Field, the airfield that the Tuskegee Airmen did their training during World War II. It took a minute for Mom and I to find the building where the exhibits were being held, and noticed a temporary building to our left. The American flag in front of the building was at half-mast, and Mom and I were wondering if we missed something in the news about someone famous or a Tuskegee Airmen passing away. Entering the building, we were greeted by a park ranger named John Whitfield who said that due to the extensive reconstruction and remodeling of Moton Field, all of the exhibits were kept in this building, and he would be glad to give us a talk about Moton Field and the Tuskegee Airmen followed by a short film.
Ranger Whitfield was very informative during his short talk and answered every question Mom and I had kindly. The American flag outside the building was at half-mast because a student at nearby Tuskegee University, who was a volunteer firefighter, had died while fighting the wildfires in California. He was only 18-years-old, and they were keeping the flag at half-mast until Monday, August 4, the day of the young man's funeral. We told Ranger Whitfield that we thought one of the Tuskegee Airmen had passed away, and he said that one of them had passed away in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago, and the flag was also at half-mast then.
The Tuskegee Airmen were formed after pressure to the government grew for African-Americans to have a bigger role in the US Military. During World War I, thousands of African-Americans fought in segregated units in France, and it would be the same during World War II. After World War I, African-Americans also became fascinated with flying airplanes and several African-American flight clubs were formed throughout the USA. The Army Air Corps was first to suggest that there be an African-American air unit, and in 1941, a small number of students from the then-Tuskegee Insitute were selected as part of this "military experiment to train African-American pilots and support staff." The training would occur at nearby Moton Field, which was named after Robert Russa Moton, the principal of Tuskegee Institute, who had passed away in 1940, and this was the beginning of the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Tuskegee Experience would last from 1941-1946 at Moton Field and over 15,000 African-American men and woman would undergo training in Tuskegee, and several of the airmen would see combat in Europe during World War II doing bombing raids on German strategic positions and formations. Daniel "Chappy" James, who was a student of Tuskegee Institute was one of the Tuskegee Airmen's success stories and would go on to become the first African-American four-star general, and the road that the historical site is on that also goes into downtown Tuskegee is named in James's honor.
After World War II ended, Moton Field was shut down and it went into terrible disrepair through the next six decades. One of the hangars along with the officers club were torn down, and some of the original brick gates were buried by construction crews who build new hangars at Moton Field. It looked like the history of the Tuskegee Airmen was going to be buried in time literally, but in 1998, Moton Field became a National Historical Site, and extensive reconstruction was started in order to preserve this valuable part of American history.
After Ranger Whitfield spoke and answered all of our questions, he took us into a small video room to watch the Tuskegee Airmen video that is narrated by actor Dorian Harewood (Roots: The Next Generation). It was a short and nice video showing pictures of the Tuskegee Airmen in training with voiceovers from the airmen talking about their experiences at Moton Field.
After the video, Mom and I were free to wander around the small exhibit in the temporary module, and then Ranger Whitfield let us out on the deck to see Moton Field more clearly. He told us we could go over to the overview area to the right to see Moton Field even better and after we said good-bye to Ranger Whitfield and thanked him for the talk, Mom and I headed over there to look around Moton Field.
During our visit to Moton Field in August 2008, it was in various stages of reconstruction and remodeling. The Officers Mess where the African-American servicemen could relax after a hard day of training (another place for the segregated unit to relax was at Tuskegee Institute), was a shell of its former self but its reconstruction was almost done. One of the hangars at Moton Field was totally razed after 1946, but while we were visiting, the hangar was being returned to its 1940's glory.
Reconstruction of Moton Field will be finished this October and a grand opening ceremony will happen at this time. The hangars will be museums depicting the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and Moton Field and will be a permanent fixture of African-American history. Mom and I hope to return to Moton Field in January when we make another (GAG!) trip to Georgia to visit the family, but our August visit was a big learning experience for Mom and me, and we won't forget it.
To get to Moton Field from I-85 East or West, take Exit 38 (Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Site Exit) and take a left off the exit ramp. Go down the road about a mile before taking a left onto Daniel "Chappy" James Road and Moton Field will be about a 1/2 mile down on the left-hand side. Admission to Moton Field is free, and it's open from 9-5 daily.