Val Archer (from left), Wilbur Mason, and Walter Richardson speak to news reporters and students about their roles as members of the storied Tuskegee Airmen.
Anant Dabas turned to his left, in a gymnasium filled with his energetic peers, and called upon officials to join his campaign to make the story of the Tuskegee Airmen a part of the history curriculum in schools in Georgia.
The eighth-grader said he began studying about the Tuskegee Airmen in the fifth grade. “I didn’t learn enough to satisfy me,” he told dignitaries attending an assembly Monday, honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.
The education he thirsted for centers on the story of black, American men who were certified pilots, but had to overcome racial opposition in pursuit of an equal opportunity, in service to their country.
“The struggle is still going on,” said Walter Richardson, 82. “I’m glad to see [the film] ‘Red Tails’ come out to remind people of what went on.”
Richardson, of Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., was an invited guest at Monday’s assembly at Henry County Middle School in McDonough. The assembly, called “Red Tails Revisited: History vs. Hollywood,” also recognized Val Archer and Wilbur Mason –– all three are Tuskegee Airmen.
Several officials, dignitaries and military personnel were invited to attend the program, according to Sheila Thomas-Johnson, an eighth-grade Georgia studies teacher at Henry County Middle. Many of them were on hand to honor the airmen, including Georgia’s First Lady Sandra Deal, Henry County Schools Superintendent Ethan Hildreth, and Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth “B.J.” Mathis.
Thomas-Johnson, the former national youth chairperson of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., helped organize the program, which represented an education for students on the contributions to American history by the storied group of black pilots, and their portrayal in the newly released movie.
“It is very good,” said Richardson. “They showed the true spirit of perseverance ... I like that it was a movie showing the dedication of men to a country where they had no civil rights.”
Richardson was an aircraft mechanic. He ended his 30-year military career in January 1979, as a chief master sergeant. The veteran said he jumped at the chance to help motivate and influence young people at the middle school. “You’ve got to have a foundation,” said Richardson, author of “How Great Thou Art,” published in June 2008.
The book records the struggles of a black man in the U.S. military during a time of racial segregation and unrest. Richardson writes about reaching for success in the face of adversity and degradation. “Faith, hope, and love” are the three pillars of success that Richardson said helped him climb the ranks of military service.
He said there were people in his life who represented those traits during the depression era, in northwest Florida. He credited his Sunday School teacher, Nick Williams, for his foundation in faith. He credited his teacher, Lillie James, for planting his roots in hope. And he honored his single mother, Lilly Richardson, for her part in providing him with love as a youngster.
“Children, today, have got a lot of things bombarding them,” Richardson said. “I want for them to work toward something with purpose. What I see is false freedom. They look at themselves inside of what they feel they are at the moment ... and not what they could be.”
Leticia Carey said she draws inspiration from the Tuskegee Airmen, and others who overcame past adversity and paved the way for people like her. Carey, of Phoenix, Ariz., was on hand Monday portraying the female pilot, Bessie Coleman. Coleman, a black woman, got her pilot’s license decades before the Tuskegee Airmen existed, learning to fly in Paris, France, and earning an international pilot’s license in 1921.
“She’s my alter ego,” said Carey, a flight attendant and commercial pilot. “Her attitude is a lot like mine. She was very sassy, and so am I.”
Carey said she earned her private pilot’s license in 2001. She said she received a multi-engine commercial instrument-rated license the next year, in December 2002.
“People said that I couldn’t,” said Carey. “I just wanted to prove that I could.
“I like to inspire kids to get into aviation,” she added. “Life is really unlimited. I believe in God, and that through him, all things are possible. Follow your dreams, because with God’s help nothing is impossible.”
Richardson recalled the moment, not too long ago, when he first felt validated in his efforts so long ago as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. He recalled attending the 2008 Tuskegee Airmen Convention in 2008, at the Philadelphia Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia, Pa. There, he said, he was greeted by young military personnel — black and white. He said they thanked him for his service.
“It came to me clearly then — clearly — that we had done our job,” emphasized Richardson.
The military veteran reported that he got official validation of his role in American history on April 6, 2010, when he received the Congressional Gold Medal as a Documented Original of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Seventeen-year-old Caleb Platts is on the cusp of finding his own validation for what he hopes will be a career in the military. Platts joined members of the color guard of Henry County High School’s Navy JROTC Unit, which presented the colors at Monday’s assembly. He is a cadet lieutenant junior grade in the 163-cadet unit, and aspires to have a career in the military like his two older brothers.
“It keeps me physically fit, it teaches me leadership, and prepares me for life after high school,” said Platts.
Platts said he has narrowed his potential choices to serving with the Department of Homeland Security, or in the U.S. Marine Corps, as an aircraft mechanic. He will be one of the ones to make sure the aircraft gets to, and from, its designations, he said.