Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Tuskegee Airmen NHS Trip Report

Tucked away in a small town in central Alabama is Tuskegee -- home of the historic Tuskegee Institute and also to Moton airfield, where the famed Tuskegee Airmen and support staff trained during World War II. Tuskegee AirmenNational Historic Site preserves the legacy of those courageous men and women.  The site is simple with museums inside the two historic hangars explaining the training and commemorating their achievements.  Unfortunately, the site is closed on Sunday (the day we visited), but several storyboards outside the site told the story more than effectively.

A little bit of imagination, prompted by the storyboards, made this site powerful!  The Tuskegee Airmen program was conceived as an experiment to see if black people could be taught to fly, fight, and maintain airplanes.  They studied at nearby Tuskegee Institute and then were bused to the airfield for their flight training.  That concept seems so foreign to us now, but I wonder how those first Tuskegee Airmen must have felt knowing they were part of an "experiment".  Were they excited?  Were they scared?  Were they frustrated that they were considered an "experiment"?  Were they eager to prove that they were equal to white people?  Perhaps some of all of that...  

From a preservation perspective, I also found it interesting that, while some of the buildings had been torn down, the National Park Service wanted to reconstruct what the site looked like back in the 1940s.  Unfortunately, all they had were a couple of photographs showing what the outside looked like.  When reconstructing structures, the NPS strives for accuracy.  Therefore, in absence of information, rather than guessing, they chose to construct ghost structures (metal frames showing the location of windows and doors) to provide an idea of the size of the buildings and their proximity to the other structures around them.

This site doesn't take long to see, and you can still get a lot out of it even if it's unexpectedly closed on the day you visit.  It serves as a powerful reminder of what some brave people chose to take on 75 years ago despite what others around them may have thought and gives us the opportunity to "walk a mile in their shoes".  The Tuskegee Institute NHS is less than 10 minutes away and provides a similar experience looking back at the vision, perseverance, and accomplishments of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver as they set out to create a first-class university for still-segregated blacks.