By Valerie Baldowski
Val Archer said some may see him, and other Tuskegee Airmen, as pioneers and role models.
"We're accused of that," he said. "That's OK. In fact, I guess we [were.] We tried to take the system on as best we could. We were probably the first major group in our culture that really challenged the system."
The Tuskegee Airmen were America's first black military airmen. From 1941 through 1946, Tuskegee Army Air Field, in Tuskegee, Ala., graduated 994 pilots. Black navigators, bombardiers and gunnery crews were trained at select military bases elsewhere in the United States, according to Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.'s web site.
Archer began his service in 1945, at Lockbourne Air Base in Columbus, Ohio.
"First, I joined the United States Army Air Corps," said Archer, 80, of Stockbridge. "They assigned me to the 332nd Fighter Group."
When then-president Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948, which prohibited segregation in the armed forces, the members of the fighter group were sent to different locations, Archer said.
"When he signed that order, we were shipped out to bases that were all white," he said. "We were split up and sent to join other organizations."
In 1948, he was sent to the U.S. Air Force headquarters in Washington, D.C., then to Korea. After completing his tour of duty there, he was sent to an atomic weapons test in the South Pacific.
He separated briefly from active duty after that, but had trouble finding employment.
"I got out to try and find a job, something in aviation, if possible," he said. "I was just old enough to have had some experience doing something, but you could not buy a job in aviation. They just did not want anything to do with anybody black. I wound up going back to active duty."
He stayed in the military, eventually retiring as a technical sergeant after a total of 21 years.
The military has changed considerably since his time in the service, said Archer.
"The segregation is no longer there," he said. "In fact, the armed forces now are the leaders in diversity."
Archer is now a public relations representative for the Atlanta Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., and makes frequent visits to schools to share his experiences with students.
"When I make my presentations to young people who are graduating from high school, I stress the fact that this is an entirely different America than what it was when I was their age," he said. "They have so many more advantages than what we had."
Archer visited High Point Christian Academy in Stockbridge last week, to recount his experiences to the students.
The topics he spoke about included the conditions black soldiers faced during the era, and the relationships between blacks and whites, according to School Administrator Larry McNorton.
"Even though he did not have all the rights he should have had, he felt compelled to fight for his country," said McNorton.
The visit served as a good learning tool for the students, he said.
"It brings history to life," McNorton said. "You can compare him to Wyatt Earp, Abraham Lincoln, or anybody else in the history books. He was there, and he made history.
"By doing the right thing in his day, he made it better for children of all races today," he added. "Our job is to take that legacy, and instill it in our children."