Flight and inspiration share common ground: They both begin with the fine art of taking off. For men of color in the segregated '40s, the two came together with blinding precision at an Army airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. There, 450 black men trained to be fighter pilots against overwhelming odds, in a program that the Army never expected or even intended to succeed. Of course, they went on to distinguish themselves with skill and valor, escorting bomber missions over Europe and North Africa.
More than fifty years after the fact, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen - captured and popularized in recent years by an excellent HBO TV movie - enjoys newfound legitimacy in the canon of WWII lore. But to a man, these veterans, though proud of their World War II accomplishments and the monster steps they took across a morass of discrimination, tend to emphasize their work in the present: In chapters across the country, including the local Hubert L. "Hooks" Jones post, members of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. now put aside their own laurels to inspire disadvantaged kids to take flight, too. In particular, the "Hooks" chapter's Mile High Flight Program introduces inner-city youth to airborne opportunities.
A couple of members of the local organization - Col. Fitzroy "Buck" Newsum, Ret., and Lt. Col. John W. Mosley, Ret., octogenarians with energy to spare - will be on hand Sunday at a reception for an exhibit at the Aurora History Museum that coincides with the advent of Black History Month. But be assured - history is only a part of their story. "We Tuskegee Airmen have the history behind us, but today's black airline pilots have the history in front of them," Newsum says. The latter group includes Mosley's son, who pilots 737s for a commercial airline.
Reminiscences by Tuskegee Airmen
Aurora History Museum, 15001 East Alameda Drive
2-3:30 p.m. Sunday, February 4
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Their utterly different stories are similar. Newsum sighted his first airplane as a boy on the island of Trinidad; afterward, he returned daily just to look at the winged thing and dream. He went on to plan his education around that fantasy of flight, imagining that if he could get enough college credits, he'd be able to apply to the Army Air Corps. "I put in my first application, and that came back rejected with no explanation," he recalls. "In a fit of anger, I put in my second, and that came back with the word 'rejected' on it, too." He finally joined a National Guard unit, reasoning that being in uniform -- any uniform -- would increase his chances of becoming a pilot. Persistence finally got him to Tuskegee.
Mosley, a Denver native who graduated from Manual High School and became one of six black students attending pre-war Colorado State University, also overcame adversity. An Aggie athlete excelling at football and wrestling, he says he was denied entry into CSU's advanced ROTC program "because of my 'physical condition.'" But Mosley continued to pursue his own dreams of flight: Unruffled, he completed a civilian pilot-training program, only to be sent to Oklahoma for field artillery training in an all-black unit when he was finally called by the military. It took a personal letter-writing campaign to his governor and congressmen to get Mosley to Tuskegee, where -- like Newsum - he still had to fight the military's outdated notion that men of color couldn't handle the pressures of combat.
Times have changed, but minority youths still face barriers. Men like Newsum and Mosley think their stories will help such kids overcome the hurdles. "It takes courage and desire to succeed in spite of all the things they put in our path," Newsum says. "I think the will to succeed was the thing that really upset the apple cart. They already programmed us by saying we didn't have the wisdom to fly, but we put that aside. Thank God that I'm still around and can tell the story."