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Tuskegee Airmen rise above racism

By Greg Gelpi

Fighting for a chance to fight for their country, the Tuskegee Airmen became the first black pilots in the military amidst sharp racial divides.

Thomas Pough Jr., a member of the Morrow High School JROTC, said that the barriers broken down by the Tuskegee Airmen then have allowed minorities more opportunities now.

"They did help pave the way for African Americans in military service," Pough, a cadet lieutenant colonel and recipient of the Tuskegee Airmen Award, said. "Certainly, African Americans have more opportunities."

Pough, a senior, said winning the national award as a freshman prompted him to do research on the Tuskegee Airmen.

And although he is black, Pough said he doesn't think of himself in terms of skin color.

"I don't judge myself by being African American," he said. "I just judge myself by what I can do."

Despite being segregated in every facet of society, African Americans were determined to be military pilots during World War II, Val Archer, the president of the Atlanta chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, said.

"Despite all of the stuff that was going on, we considered this our country," Archer said. "We had no other country. We had a right to defend our country."

He recalled "humiliation" and "psychological segregation" that pervaded society.

The 450 Tuskegee pilots flew more than 1,500 missions and 15,000 sorties, he said.

"The policy was 50 missions and you go home," Archer said. "Obviously, we flew a hell of a lot more than 50 missions to maintain that record."

He said that the Tuskegee Airmen escorted an all-white B-17 bomber because no one else was available for the mission. After escorting the bomber to and from the target without losing a plane, B-17s began requesting the services of the Tuskegee Airmen.

"It's important for young people to have a sense of the culture we emerged from," Archer said, adding that no B-17 was shot down while being escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen. "This is our most satisfying personal record."

Wilbur Mason was a civilian who worked at the Tuskegee airbase in Alabama during the start of the Tuskegee Airmen.

"They knew they had a mission to do, and they stuck to it," Mason, a member of the Atlanta chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, said.

Members of the Tuskegee Airmen spoke at Clayton College & State University as part of the university's Black History Month activities Tuesday.

Clayton State is planning other events for Black History Month. Ben Boswell Jr., senior vice president of community affairs for Wachovia Bank, will speak about career opportunities at noon Feb. 12 in the lecture hall. Rapper and businessman Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy will speak from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Feb. 18 in the university's athletic and fitness center.