Tuskegee Airmen Observe 70-Year Legacy

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2011 — More than 650 peo­ple gath­ered Aug. 3–7 for the 40th annu­al Tuskegee Air­men con­ven­tion, which fea­tured events through­out the nation­al cap­i­tal region.

This year’s theme, “70 Years of Avi­a­tion Excel­lence: Then, Now, the Future,” cel­e­brates the 70th anniver­sary of the Tuskegee Air­men lega­cy.

Six­ty-sev­en orig­i­nal Tuskegee Air­men reg­is­tered for the con­ven­tion; among them was retired Col. Charles E. McGee.

“Because we were seg­re­gat­ed, we were togeth­er over a long time, so some life­long friend­ships have come out of that expe­ri­ence,” McGee said. “Gath­er­ing at con­ven­tions is our way of keep­ing in touch, even though our num­bers are drop­ping off. Con­ven­tions are a chance for us to share with oth­ers in the dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties.”

The week kicked off Aug. 3 with the final flight of an Army 1944 PT-13 Stear­man biplane, as it flew along the Potomac Riv­er. The air­craft orig­i­nal­ly was used to train Tuskegee pilots before retir­ing from mil­i­tary ser­vice as a crop duster.

Rec­og­nized as a vital piece of avi­a­tion and African-Amer­i­can his­to­ry, the biplane — named the “Spir­it of Tuskegee” — will be viewed by future gen­er­a­tions at the Smith­son­ian Institution’s Nation­al Muse­um of African-Amer­i­can His­to­ry and Cul­ture.

The Tuskegee Air­men also hon­ored their brethren who lost their lives in ser­vice to their coun­try with a wreath-lay­ing cer­e­mo­ny at the Air Force Memo­r­i­al, and they received a sneak peak of the nation­al memo­r­i­al to Mar­tin Luther King Jr. that is set to open to the pub­lic lat­er this month on the Nation­al Mall.

Aug. 4 was set aside to inspire the avi­a­tors of tomor­row. About 400 teenagers from across the nation began their day at Joint Base Andrews, Md. They toured sta­t­ic air­craft dis­plays, watched oper­a­tional demon­stra­tions and tried on mil­i­tary gear. The teens then trav­eled to the Gay­lord Nation­al Resort and Con­ven­tion Cen­ter at the Nation­al Har­bor where they enjoyed a lunch with influ­en­tial avi­a­tion and mil­i­tary lead­ers, includ­ing the Tuskegee Air­men.

“It’s going great,” said Trent Dud­ley, the pres­i­dent of the Tuskegee Airmen’s East Coast chap­ter and event coor­di­na­tor. “Any time you can link the orig­i­nal air­men with the youth is won­der­ful.”

McGee not­ed the impor­tance of con­tin­u­ing the Tuskegee Airmen’s lega­cy.

“The way I put it when I talk to 7th graders or 8th graders is they need to real­ize that 25 years from now what’s going on in the coun­try is going to be what they’re doing,” he said. “So we hope that they’re still focused to pre­serve our free­doms and still seek equal oppor­tu­ni­ty and equal access for all.”

The Aug. 4 focus turned to the mil­i­tary mem­bers mak­ing sac­ri­fices in today’s wars. An exec­u­tive and senior-leader pan­el field­ed ques­tions from an almost all-mil­i­tary audi­ence. Top­ics includ­ed pos­si­ble changes to the mil­i­tary retire­ment sys­tem, diver­si­ty in the mil­i­tary and men­tor­ing.

“Diver­si­ty is a mil­i­tary neces­si­ty,” said Jar­ris Tay­lor Jr., deputy assis­tant sec­re­tary of the Air Force for strate­gic diver­si­ty inte­gra­tion. “Diver­si­ty is a lead­er­ship and man­age­r­i­al phi­los­o­phy, not mil­i­tary equal oppor­tu­ni­ty. It’s about orga­ni­za­tion­al change.”

“The more diverse that we are, the bet­ter,” said retired Lt. Col. James C. War­ren, an orig­i­nal Tuskegee Air­man. “If we quit using hyphen­ations in Amer­i­ca, we’ll get along much bet­ter. I’m not an African-Amer­i­can — I’m an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen.”

War­ren has attend­ed 39 of the 40 Tuskegee Air­men con­ven­tions. He missed one because he was still on active duty serv­ing in the Viet­nam War.

Halfway through the day Aug. 5, a large crowd of hotel staff and guests lined the hall­way out­side the ball­room used for the con­ven­tion. When the Tuskegee Air­men and cur­rent mil­i­tary ser­vice mem­bers broke for lunch, they were greet­ed with an explo­sion of clap­ping and cheer­ing.

“It’s such an hon­or for us to be able to host the Tuskegee Air­men. They are Amer­i­can icons,” said Aimie Gor­rell, the Gay­lord Nation­al Resort and Con­ven­tion Cen­ter direc­tor of pub­lic rela­tions. “We were thrilled that about 400 of our staff were able to take time away from their work today to come out and do what we call a ‘stand­ing ova­tion.’ We do a stand­ing ova­tion for our very most VIP guests and cus­tomers, and cer­tain­ly the Tuskegee Air­men are our true VIPs today.”

The con­ven­tion served as a reminder of just how diverse Amer­i­can soci­ety has become in present day, McGee said.

“It’s been reward­ing to be a part of the expe­ri­ence,” McGee said, “and see that change has tak­en place. I believe it’s for the good. Our coun­try is more diverse now than it was then, so we need to stay on that road, … because tal­ent doesn’t come with hap­pen­stance of birth.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)