By Curt Yeomans
Joseph Mahone was excited and nervous Monday as he ate his lunch at Jackson Elementary School in Jonesboro.
The 10-year-old fourth-grader sat at a table, covered with a white-and-blue tablecloth, as he listened to the man sitting next to him, William "W.O." Smith, talk about what it was like being one of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
Smith, and another pilot, Donald Summerlin, visited Jackson Elementary School to launch the Black History Month observance at the school.
The now-retired airmen told students about facing prejudice in the military, and how they fought to overcome it. Nearly 20 students, who won a school-sponsored Tuskegee Airmen essay contest, were rewarded with personal audiences with Smith and Summerlin.
"I'm excited because I'd like to be a pilot some day, and they inspire me even more to become one," Mahone said. "But I'm nervous because this is my first time meeting someone who made history."
The Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American U.S. Army Air Corps fighters, made history in a segregated American military during World War II by providing air support for bombers piloted by their white counterparts. The group never lost a bomber.
Summerlin, who joined the U.S. Army Air Corps - the precursor to the Air Force - in 1944, and retired from the Air Force as a chief master sergeant in 1989, said the War Department did not believe the Tuskegee Airmen could be successful. That mentality made the airmen work even harder to succeed, he told students.
"They said we couldn't hack it, and by 1946, we said 'How do you like us now?'" said Summerlin.
Smith said he and Summerlin wanted to impart upon the students the importance of dedication and perseverance in the face of any challenge.
"Despite what people say, you have to throw the words 'I can't' out the window," Smith said. "Find your niche, and do the best you can do."
Of the 15,000 Tuskegee Airmen - mechanics, navigators, engineers, nurses and nearly 1,000 pilots - Smith said about 250 are still alive.
"I'm impressed to see they're living, and that they served in World War II," said Eugenia Williams, a 9-year-old fourth-grader. "They inspire me to be somebody, and to not let anybody control me."
Because there are so few Tuskegee Airmen alive, officials at Jackson Elementary wanted their students to have an opportunity to meet living history, said Anne Hendricks-Browning, the school's media specialist.
Hendricks-Browning, who is in her first year as the head of Jackson's library, has scheduled visits from Tuskegee Airmen at schools she's worked at for the last four years.
"They are a perfect example of living history," Hendricks-Browning said. "When you can actually speak to someone who was actually there, it makes history come alive."
Black History Month programs will occur throughout the month in Clayton and Henry counties.
Clayton County schools also have created a page on the district's Web site, which includes links to educational sites for Black History Month. Biographies of some contemporary African Americans, including President Barack Obama, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and talk show host Oprah Winfrey are among the links.
In other Black History Month events in Clayton and Henry counties:
· Clayton County Public Library's headquarters branch will host an African-American genealogy program Friday, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at 865 Battle Creek Road, Jonesboro. There is no sign-up cost, but advance registration is required. For more information, call (770) 473-3850.
· Former State Sen. Gail Davenport will host "An African-American Salute" Feb. 8., at 4 p.m., in the Henry County Performing Arts Center, 37 Lemon St., McDonough. Admission is free. For more information call (404) 766-2500, or (770) 478-7916.
· Clayton County Public Library's Forest Park branch will show the movie, "Tuskegee Airmen," Feb. 16, at 2 p.m., in the library, located at 696 Main St., Forest Park. Children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult. There is no cost to attend this event. For more information, call (404) 366-0850.
· Clayton County Public Library's headquarters branch will host an African-American Read-In Feb. 19, from 6 to 6:45 p.m. There is no sign-up cost for this event. For more information, call (770) 473-3850.
· The Henry County Library System's Fairview branch will host a Black History Month reading program on Feb. 23, at 6:30 p.m., at the library, located at 28 Austin Road, Stockbridge. The program is targeted at upper elementary through high school students. There is no cost for the event. For more information, call (770) 389-6277.
· The American Family Theater will present "Black Journey" Feb. 27, at 10 a.m., and 7 p.m., at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center. Admission is $7.95 for the 10 a.m. show, and $7 for adults and $5 for children for the 7 p.m. show. For more information, call (770) 473-2875, or log onto www.americanfamilytheater.com.