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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Tuskegee Airmen Honored by Chancellor

Chancellor J. Keith Motley’s inauguration included a special recognition of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in the U.S. military. Motley is a member of a chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., an organization open to civilians and veterans alike. TAI promotes the history of the Airmen, and aims to advance education and scholarship-particularly in the fields of aviation and technology. Representatives from the New England Chapter and the Charles E. McGee Chapter at Hanscom joined with Motley for the event.

In the afternoon, a special luncheon was held in honor of these celebrated servicemen. An original veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen was seated at each table. These men were all locals, even if their unit received its name from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They included Jack Bryant of Scituate, Willis Saunders of Roxbury, James McLaurin of Weymouth, Harvey Sanford of Roxbury, Enoch Woodhouse of Boston, and William Bennett of Roxbury.

Beginning with the 99th Pursuit Squadron in 1941, these soldiers fought against discrimination and racism at home in the army, as well as the racism of the fascists abroad.

The 332nd included almost a thousand pilots, and close to five times that number in support staff, including mechanics, doctors, weather men and cooks. Segregation meant that white crews would not work with the Tuskegee pilots-every aspect of the squadrons was duplicated exactly. “We didn’t need no basic training,” said William Bennett, who enlisted in January of 1943. “We weren’t going to the front line.”

As the war continued, however, the U.S. military was forced to deploy the 332nd, which flew over 1,500 missions by the war’s end. In spite of the demonstrated heroism of black pilots in Europe, the U.S. refused to release the 477th Medium Bombardment Group from training, Bennett said.

Introducing the event were Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Patrick Day and University Advancement Director of Stewardship Ellen Fleming. Remarks were made by Joiner Center Director Kevin Bowen, Joiner Center and Trotter Institute board member Charlie Desmond, Alumnus Ron Armstead, and Trotter Institute Director Barbara Lewis. Chancellor Motley arrived later, after braving a seemingly endless line of well wishers in the Campus Center ballroom.

Ron Armstead ’79, spoke on behalf of the Monroe Trotter Institute, and highlighted an often-overlooked fact about the Tuskegee Airmen. Many Americans know the legend of the Airmen, that they never lost a bomber during an escort mission. “That doesn’t mean no one got shot down,” Armstead said. He said that thirty-two Tuskegee airmen were prisoners of war during World War II, and their sacrifices should be recognized.

In March 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal. The highlight of the ceremony, for Armstead, was Bush’s salute to the airmen “I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities,” Bush said.

Barbara Lewis described the Tuskegee Airmen as a modern myth for African-Americans. “They were men who wrote their names and the future of our race across the skies,” Lewis said.

Motley emphasized his respect for the trail blazing work of the Tuskegee veterans. The newly inaugurated chancellor spoke of his pride in seeing the World War II veterans wear their uniforms so well. “I’m very proud. I’m the first person who looks like you to lead this university,” Motley said. “I have used your legacy as a platform so I can stand in front of you today.”