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Real Tuskegee Airmen share history with students

Special Photo: Tuskegee Airman Val Archer, of Stockbridge, routinely makes trips to area elementary schools and supports local high schools’ Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps Programs.

Special Photo: Tuskegee Airman Val Archer, of Stockbridge, routinely makes trips to area elementary schools and supports local high schools’ Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps Programs.

On the heels of the much-anticipated release of the George Lucas film, “Red Tails,” a story about the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, three members of the historic fighter pilot group will receive due recognition as legends in American history.

Members of the Henry County Middle School community, joined by state and local dignitaries, will honor the men Monday, during a special program at the school, called “Red Tails Revisited: History vs. Hollywood.” The honorees include Val Archer, Wilbur Mason, and Walter Richardson.

The program will feature a dramatic performance by Henry County Middle School students and a presentation by Henry County High School’s Navy JROTC cadets, as well as remarks by First Lady Sandra Deal, the wife of Gov. Nathan Deal.

Monday’s appearance of the three Tuskegee Airmen will be one of the first such engagements since the premiere of the movie that opened Jan. 20, according to Sheila Thomas-Johnson, a long-time member, and former national youth chairperson of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

Thomas-Johnson is an eighth-grade English/language arts, and Georgia studies teacher, at Henry County Middle School. She helped organize the program, which serves as a continuation of the school’s broader study of World War II, through cross-curricular learning that includes lessons about the Tuskegee Airmen.

The English/language arts teacher also helped develop a writer’s workshop program at Henry County Middle School, called the Author-In-Residence Program, which features different authors monthly.

John Gibson, of Dallas, Texas, was this month’s featured author, she said. He is the author of two fictional, but historically accurate books about the Tuskegee Airmen, called “A Sparrow Has Wings” and “Higher Heights.”

Gibson conducted workshops in the school’s English/language arts and social studies classes the week of Jan. 16-20. Thomas-Johnson said the workshops were partly intended to help prepare students for Monday’s assembly, honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.

The school is planning to host an “Adopt a Wingman” program, the morning of the assembly. She said the program will bring aviation industry personnel to classrooms of the middle school to speak to students about various aspects of the industry and its history. There also will be a reenactment of the life and history of Bessie Coleman (portrayed by actor, Leticia Carey), the first African American in the United States to become an internationally licensed pilot.

“What brought all of these forces together is that we had two really powerful aviation experiences in our classroom,” said Thomas-Johnson. The educator pointed to eighth-grader, Amber Willit, a winner in a Southwest Airlines essay contest about the legacy of aviation — the only winner from Georgia.

She said the youngster and her mother were rewarded with a flight to Southwest Airlines headquarters in Dallas, Texas, where they were able to meet members of the Tuskegee Airmen. The student was invited later to read her essay to the Atlanta Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Thomas-Johnson said Monday’s event was inspired by the efforts of one of Willit’s classmates. Eighth-grader, Anant Dabas, made the Tuskegee Airmen the focus of his recent social studies project, presented at the school’s social studies fair in November.

“He wanted to know why the Tuskegee Airmen were not in our Georgia standards [curriculum],” said Thomas-Johnson, noting many of the airmen are from Georgia, and currently live in the state.

Dabas started in November, collecting signatures for a petition to demonstrate support for including the Tuskegee Airmen’s story in the Georgia Performance Standards curriculum on World War II.

“He is hoping the Georgia connection of the Tuskegee Airmen will be added to the statewide curriculum,” said Thomas-Johnson.

She said the youngster, so far, has collected 200 signatures from youths and adults alike. He is trying to get a thousand signatures by school year’s end.

As with other veterans of the World War II era, fewer and fewer Tuskegee Airmen are left to tell their stories, said the Georgia studies teacher. She said there are fewer than 100, now, and they are in their mid-80s to early 90s. There were nearly 1,000 airmen, who went through the cadet program at Tuskegee.