By Harry C. Alford
Last week, I received an email from my friend, NNPA News Service Editor-in-Chief George E. Curry. It was a White House press release and a copy of First Lady Michelle Obama’s May 9 commencement address at Tuskegee University. My first thought was: Why is George sending me this?
For some reason, I stopped everything to read it. I almost fell out of my chair when the First Lady started talking about our famous Tuskegee Airmen. George knew that as a veteran and son-in-law of one of the first four Tuskegee Airmen, Charles DeBow, it fills me with great pride every time I hear something about these heroes.
The first lady said:
“And I’d like to begin today by reflecting on that history – starting back at the time when the Army chose Tuskegee as the site of its airfield and flight school for black pilots.
“Back then, black soldiers faced all kinds of obstacles. There were the so-called scientific studies that said that black men’s brains were smaller than white men’s. Official Army reports stated that black soldiers were ‘childlike,’ ‘shiftless,’ ‘unmoral and untruthful,’ and as one quote stated, ‘if fed, loyal and compliant.’”
“So while the Airmen selected for this program were actually highly educated – many already had college degrees and pilots licenses – they were presumed to be inferior. During training, they were often assigned to menial tasks like housekeeping or landscaping. Many suffered verbal abuse at the hands of their instructors. When they ventured off base, the white sheriff here in town called them “boy” and ticketed them for the most minor offenses. And when they finally deployed overseas, white soldiers often wouldn’t even return their salutes.
“Just think about what that must have been like for those young men. Here they were, trained to operate some of the most complicated, high-tech machines of their day – flying at hundreds of miles an hour, with the tips of their wings just six inches apart. Yet when they hit the ground, folks treated them like they were nobody – as if their very existence meant nothing.
“Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings. But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military. They went on to show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely – surely – they could eat at a lunch counter together. Surely their kids could go to school together.
“You see, those Airmen always understood that they had a ‘double duty’ – one to their country and another to all the black folks who were counting on them to pave the way forward. So for those Airmen, the act of flying itself was a symbol of liberation for themselves and for all African Americans.
“One of those first pilots, a man named Charles DeBow, put it this way. He said that a takeoff was – in his words – ‘a never-failing miracle’ where all ‘the bumps would smooth off… [you’re] in the air… out of this world… free.’
“And when he was up in the sky, Charles sometimes looked down to see black folks out in the cotton fields not far from here – the same fields where decades before, their ancestors as slaves. And he knew that he was taking to the skies for them – to give them and their children something more to hope for, something to aspire to.
“And in so many ways, that never-failing miracle – the constant work to rise above the bumps in our path to greater freedom for our brothers and sisters — that has always been the story of African Americans here at Tuskegee….
“Those Airmen who rose above brutal discrimination – they did it so the whole world could see just how high black folks could soar. That’s the spirit we’ve got to summon to take on the challenges we face today.”
She talked about the greatness of Tuskegee and then returned to DeBow:
“That pilot I mentioned earlier – Charles DeBow – he didn’t rest on his laurels after making history. Instead, after he left the Army, he finished his education. He became a high school English teacher and a college lecturer. He kept lifting other folks up through education. He kept fulfilling his ‘double duty’ long after he hung up his uniform….
“And if you rise above the noise and the pressures that surround you, if you stay true to who you are and where you come from, if you have faith in God’s plan for you, then you will keep fulfilling your duty to people all across this country. And as the years pass, you’ll feel the same freedom that Charles DeBow did when he was taking off in that airplane. You will feel the bumps smooth off. You’ll take part in that ‘never-failing miracle’ of progress. And you’ll be flying through the air, out of this world – free.”
The first lady of our great nation was paying tribute to the person I love and whose blood flows through my wife and sons. For this, I am so appreciative and forever grateful. Charles DeBow is smiling down on us.