A Cut Above: Honoring the Tuskegee Airmen

A Cut Above: Honoring the Tuskegee Airmen

HIGHER GROUND: Pilots of a Tuskegee Airmen unit, circa May 1943, likely in Southern Italy or North Africa. The Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces. (Photo: Wikipedia)

This week’s observance of Memorial Day, along with the recent release of the film Red Tails (now available on DVD and Blu-ray), brought back memories of a highlight from my life and career. Two years ago, I had the honor of interviewing four extraordinary men for a local paper in San Antonio: Buck Sergeant Warren H. Eusan, Mr. John “Mule” Miles, Lt. Colonel Gene Derricotte, and Lt. Colonel Granville Coggs. I was noticeably nervous going in, knowing that I’d be interviewing a part of history — a remnant of the illustrious Tuskegee Airmen.

The men, all well into their eighth decade, looked distinguished and refined. I was captivated by their profound stories. With every question I asked, the reality of just how special they were began to unfold. As the first African American aviators in the U.S. armed forces, their courage and success during World War II helped open doors to military service that were once off limits to certain minority groups. Their experiences spoke of a confidence born of great achievement against enormous odds. Indeed, after they took flight, the whole world watched, with everyone, for the most part, believing they would fail.

Although at times life as an airman seemed insurmountably difficult, 90-year-old Eusan, who later became a public school teacher, recalled: “It made us stick together, and there was a pride in all of us that said we had to make it.”

LIVING LEGENDS: Surviving Tuskegee Airmen (from left) Warren Eusan, Gene Derricotte, Granville Coggs and John Miles continue to meet as the San Antonio, Texas, chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. (Photo: Wanda Thomas Littles)

I was transported by their remembrances to the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 2007, when they and more than 300 other Tuskegee Airmen or their surviving family members stood to witness the ultimate words that they had longed to hear — their names called as collective recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor some 65 years after all the victory celebrations, parades, and ticker tape joyfully lavished on other soldiers had faded away. It was an honor way overdue.

Lt. Colonel Coggs, now retired from the army said, “The honor and recognition we are now receiving is unimaginable … I just wish that those who died without seeing it could be here.”

As we moved on, my questions to them referenced the unabashed racism they faced as young airmen near Tuskegee, Alabama, and I could sense an agreement in spirit that said they had survived and had overcome the harsh reality of an America that was unwilling to regard them as intelligent and capable human beings.

However, these men didn’t allow the mistreatment and disrespect to outweigh the greater mission, for which the fate of the whole of Black America hinged. Although all of them at times thought about it, and probably came close to laying out more than a few white antagonists who taunted them with racist epithets, they did not.

FLY BALL: John 'Mule' Miles played baseball in the Negro League following WW2.

Eighty-eight year old Miles said, “The key to not retaliating was my faith in God; because if it had not been for the Lord on my side, where would I be?” Miles would go on to play ball for The American Negro Baseball League in Chicago after the war.

The Tuskegee Airmen fine-tuned the art of restraint through another type of courage called self-control. And through this restraint, through remaining strong under unthinkable pressure, they proved the whole world wrong about their capabilities.

The most outstanding part of being a Tuskegee Airman was the position they took that said, “No matter how hard they make it, we can take it. There is no room for failure. We must succeed.”

And succeed they did.

Being totally on one accord at every level, from ground to air, this unity of purpose was truly their greatest contribution in destroying the myth that African American men did not have what it took to hold positions of responsibility.

The Tuskegee Airmen, who actually saw battle as fighter pilots, flew 15,553 combat sorties and completed 1,578 missions, providing fighter escorts to strategic targets in Europe. These were men who served with distinction over North Africa, Italy, and Germany. White bomber crews ultimately called them “Red Tailed Angels” because of the red paint on their tail assemblies; but most importantly because they protected the white pilots on their missions. Under the leadership of then-Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, who trained the first black pilots at Tuskegee Institute in a unit called the 99th Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen showed the world what a people who had been written off as intellectually and mentally deficient were capable of.

After nearly 30 years in the shadow of obscurity and lies, the truth was finally told. With the founding of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. in 1972 in Detroit, Michigan, 50 chapters sprung up all over the U.S. and the record was set straight. Now the organization’s collective aim is to help further the education of young men and women of all races in math, science, and aviation through scholarships and a variety of programs to honor of the Tuskegee Airmen.

OFFICER & GENTLEMAN: Lt. Colonel Gene Derricotte.

Lt. Colonel Derricotte, the youngest of the group at age 84, who served in both the Army and Air Force before becoming a dentist, explained, “Essentially no one knew there was such a thing as the Tuskegee Airmen. Now when I speak at schools, and in the community, people tell me how sorry they are for the way we were treated and tell me how proud they are of me — of us.”

The Tuskegee project, according to the men, began when a law passed by Congress allowing African Americans to train in civilian life as pilots was passed. After this bill took effect, an experimental Negro branch of pilots in the Army Air Corps was formed. To date there are roughly 278 Tuskegee Airmen living, with about 90 having been pilots; however, no one knows for certain how many of the estimated 19,000 “Tuskegee Experience” participants are still alive today. What we do know is that they all played an important role in the war. While men like Lee Archer, one of just three Tuskegee pilots with four “kills,” and Roscoe C. Brown, who flew over 79 missions in his career, were making remarkable history in the thick of battle, the men and women back home were building a legacy by following the precedent established to maintain superior support of the men abroad, outstanding deportment, and high achievements in flight should they have to deploy.

PROUD SOLDIER: Buck Sergeant Warren H. Eusan.

The NAACP, the black press, and even then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who flew with a black pilot at Tuskegee, worked hard to get the Tuskegee project off the ground and to support its development. These men and women were the cream of the crop from black colleges and universities across the land. They were men and women who’d studied to be doctors, lawyers, educators, even aviators, who jumped at the opportunity to serve our nation. They were salutatorians, valedictorians, and men and women who were in the upper tenth of their class. They were men and women who were simply the best.

Miles said, “We worked hard all day and went to school at night.”

Even now, the bond forged between them is strong. The men joked, bantered, and reflected on their past lives and Buck Sergeant Eusan asked, “Did you know Derricotte was a student of mine that I trained to master the instrumentation on our planes?” When asked by Derricotte what kind of grade he got, Eusan said, “You’re here right now, aren’t you? You must have gotten an A.”

SKY'S THE LIMIT: Lt. Colonel Granville Coggs.

They laughed — a beautiful thing to hear, which speaks of the resilience of men who turned disrespect, bigotry, and injustice into an occasion for something positive.

Lt. Colonel Coggs reflected, “The only way you could describe the Tuskegee Airmen is that we were a cut above.” And they were, because President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order ending segregation in the military after seeing just how far above the racist labels and stereotypes they were.

It’s interesting to note that all but two of the San Antonio chapter members thought that George Lucas’s Red Tails was the best, most accurate film to date on the Tuskegee Airmen; and they’ve seen them all. The two dissenting Airmen felt the film underplayed the intense racial struggles that they faced in favor of a more glamorized “Hollywood” tale. Nonetheless, earlier this year the seven San Antonio Airmen celebrated the film made in their honor by signing autographs and sharing memories with the local press at San Antonio’s Rialto Theater. Inside the theater, after being introduced as members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, they received a standing ovation from moviegoers and staff.

Vintage photos courtesy of the San Antonio Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

We Remember ‘Soul Train’

We Remember ‘Soul Train’

SOUL CONDUCTOR: Don Cornelius, dead at 75, transformed American culture with 'Soul Train.'

“Peace, Love, and Soul.”

That’s how he used to bid us adieu at the close of every show, that bespectacled man with the velvety voice and cool disposition. The apparent suicide death of Soul Train creator and host Don Cornelius caught us all off guard, while immediately transporting us back to those more soulful days of yesteryear — pre-MTV days, when the music wasn’t just an afterthought but the main event.

We tuned into Soul Train each week to see our favorite soul and R&B stars, sometimes for the very first time. (The four sisters of Sister Sledge looked as cute as they sounded, and imagine my shock as a 6-year-old to discover that Elton John was white!) But we mostly showed up for the array of colorful dancers — to check out their moves, to see what they were wearing, and to imagine ourselves right there with them. We knew that if we didn’t see any other black images on TV all week, we could at least see ourselves on Soul Train every weekend. Don Cornelius, the radio-deejay-turned-television-impresario, gave that to us — a refuge for African American pride and empowerment disguised as a TV dance show.

In honor of Mr. Cornelius, we asked our UrbanFaith columnists and regular contributors to share their favorite memories of Soul Train. Check out their reflections below the video, and then share yours in the comments section. — Edward Gilbreath, editor

MEMORIES OF ‘SOUL TRAIN’

It was soon proven otherwise, but Don Cornelius through Soul Train, told me I was a good dancer. Every Saturday morning after cartoons went off, feeling like a grownup, I’d tune in to move to the music any kind of way just like the Soul Train dancers. Going down the Soul Train line, some of them looked so crazy. But at home, bounding through an imaginary line of people, so did I. Don Cornelius made it cool to love music enough to dance no matter what. By the time I came along, his ’fro wasn’t as big, but the cool he carried was bigger than life. And I felt just as hip rhythmlessly dancing with my own portion of soul. — DeVona Alleyne, staff editor and contributing writer

I am very saddened by the death of Don Cornelius, a black legend! Back in the ’70s and ’80s before the dominance MTV or BET, there were very few outlets to see my favorite R&B acts like Michael Jackson, New Edition, or DeBarge perform on television. Since my parents were pretty conservative at the time, I wasn’t allowed to watch Soul Train but as a lifelong R&B and pop culture aficionado, I found ways to watch this great show without “technically” breaking the rules. I wasn’t allowed to go inside of childhood friends’ homes either unless my parents knew their parents. I remember I had one friend who allowed me to literally sit on the pavement outside of her apartment. We would speak to each other through the open window, and if she happened to have Soul Train on the television behind her, who was I to say what she could watch inside her home? I remember that one light-skinned woman with extra long black hair that whipped around her body (pre-Willow Smith) as she danced on what seemed like nearly every episode for years! I couldn’t wait until I got a perm so I could whip my hair around like that! A towel wrapped around my head sufficed until I finally got a perm. I remember all of the fresh dance moves that would not be duplicated on American Bandstand, even though I was a fan of that show too. Simply put, there was nothing else like that show at that time, an oasis of black grooves and moves in a desert of white programming. RIP Don Cornelius …  Jacqueline J. Holness, contributing writer

I’ll never forget Soul Train, from the chugging train at the intro to the various incarnations of the Soul Train dancers.  Don Cornelius made this show an institution that definitely shaped the culture and gave us memorable performances on the stage and dance floor.
— Dr. Vincent Bacote, contributing editor

Being in a military family, every so often we’d get stuck in the boonies with no television we could relate to. When my dad got orders to a big urban city, we kids were ecstatic. It was my job to watch my younger siblings on Saturdays while my parents worked, and at the time when I announced SOUUULLL TRAINNNN is on, my brothers and sisters would run from outside like they’d lost their minds. Oh, and then the party was on. We bumped, spanked, wormed, or whatever the latest dance craze was, along with the hippest kids in America. If there had been just two or three more of us, we could have formed a Soul Train line right there in the living room. It grieves me to know that Don Cornelius couldn’t find another way; which serves to remind us that we must get the word out about the only One who can bring us out of our troubles, the only One Who can bring us out of the lies that Satan tells us when we see no way out. There is a world of hurting people who don’t really know Him. Someone needs to tell them. We need to tell them.
— Wanda Thomas Littles, contributing writer

Despite being a child of the late 70s and 80s, I didn’t have many actual experiences of watching Soul Train. Most of my memories regarding Soul Train were at various school dances and wedding receptions growing up, when folks would start up “the soul train line” and line up to cut a step. Most of the influence of Soul Train I witnessed were in derivative television shows (like Solid Gold), subtle homages (like when Theo and Cockroach fought over who was getting into Dance Mania) or actual parodies (like In Living Color‘s “Old Train” sketch). Still, I got a little misty when I got the news of Don Cornelius’ passing. No one will ever really replace him and what he meant to the black community. — Jelani Greenidge, columnist

As a girl growing up in small-town New Jersey in the 1970s, my primary exposure to black culture was Soul Train, and oh how I loved Soul Train! It was sandwiched between Saturday-morning cartoons and Saturday-afternoon roller derby on our television station. It never occurred to me that by introducing me to some of that era’s best music and most accomplished musicians, Don Cornelius was drawing me into a richly textured world that was not available to me then. I just knew I loved hearing his smoky voice and dancing to the sounds of soul. It saddens me deeply to learn that, like my son, this gifted man apparently died by suicide. I’m reminded that depression and despair don’t only visit the downtrodden, but even the most accomplished among us. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. — Christine A. Scheller, news & religion editor

I remember the Jackson 5 barely had enough room to dance on that stage. Fans could literally touch Marvin Gaye as he sang (and they did). You could feel the sweat dripping off of Barry White’s collar. This was Soul Train, Black America’s debutante ball. As a child it always felt RAW, like a grown-folks party that I could only watch from the stairs. It seemed fun enough, but in reality Soul Train was about rebellion: finding a way to create in the midst of the chaos of injustice. Black people were thrown into America’s basement, and Don Cornelius found a way to host a house party there every Saturday. It remains our challenge to find hope in the midst of great darkness; to dance when the forces of life threaten to steal all rhythm. And when I look at black music today — videos that portray the worst potentialities for our young men and women, dancing that has turned into “Sex Lite,” and artists that lack intimacy and authenticity — we need not ever forget Soul Train. The truth is, we need it back. Thank you Don Cornelius, from the little boy who watched your party from the stairs. — Julian DeShazier, contributing writer

Sitting in my parents’ living room, the back of my legs sticking to the plastic covering mom’s gold velvet couch, the funky music from the Jacksons, the Sylvers, and Joe Tex would blare from the black-and-white screen. I would fix my eyes on the Afro puffs, braids, wide brim hats and bellbottoms, imagining their psychedelic colors (mom and pops did eventually get a color TV) as they danced the funky chicken or the  robot. As Jermaine sang, they would be “movin, she’s groovin. Dancin’ until the music stops now, yeah” down the Soul Train line. My older sister and brothers would bust all the moves, blocking my view of the TV along the way. But back then, when you were the baby brother, you just kept quiet and thankful that they let you hang out with them on Saturday morning. We were raised in a 12th floor apartment in The Tilden Houses (The Projects) in Brownsville, Brooklyn (NY). Watching Soul Train was more than a temporary escape from what was immediately outside the door, down an elevator that often stuck, or the stairwell that was owned by depressed brothers and sisters high on dope. Soul Train was a weekly, encouraging dose of positive black life, of people who were happy, talented, and free. And they looked like me. Mr. Cornelius, you did a great thing, sir. I pray that your soul has found the peace that you wished for us all. Wil LaVeist, columnist

Facing the Hollywood Giants — and Winning

Facing the Hollywood Giants — and Winning

There was a girl named Alicia who said her dad had abandoned her and her siblings years ago, but he showed up for her brother’s wedding. When there was a break in the festivities, she and her sister took him to see Courageous. They were sitting in the theater watching the film and her dad began to cry. During the film’s climatic church scene, where men are urged to declare their commitment to become better husbands, fathers, and leaders, Alicia’s dad stood up alone in front of the whole theater in response to the film’s virtual altar call. Soon, other men stood up in front of their seats. Alicia and her sister began to cry. That moment, she said, was the beginning of a needed healing process for her entire family.

In Panama, 700 police officers gathered from across their nation to watch Courageous because they had heard so much about it. When they left the theater, they couldn’t stop talking about how they could follow the film’s call to action and sign a resolution to be men of honor. They said they could change Panama if government servants like them would operate in integrity.

There was a soldier who had served in Afghanistan. He’d gotten hooked on a pain medication that caused him and his family to fall quickly into a downward spiral. He watched Courageous then called his wife and said, “I have to do the courageous thing to save my family, so I’m checking myself into rehab. I now have hope.”

A man had blocked out of his mind that he had fathered a child out of wedlock when he was in college. Now decades later, after seeing Courageous, he realized he needed to reconnect with that child. “God wants to turn the hearts of children back to their fathers and fathers back to their children,” he said.

These are four of the over 320,000 Facebook posts written as a result of people, especially fathers, seeing the film Courageous and sharing their life-changing stories. After a successful four-month run in theaters last fall, Courageous was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc last week.

SENDING HOLLYWOOD A MESSAGE: 'Courageous' producer and Sherwood Pictures co-founder Stephen Kendrick.

Stephen Kendrick and his brother Alex, both ministers at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, are the filmmakers behind Courageous; the brothers co-wrote the script, Stephen produced, and Alex directed and starred in the film as police officer Adam Mitchell. The Kendricks, whose film company Sherwood Pictures previously produced such features as Facing the Giants and Fireproof, have become the Tyler Perrys of evangelical Christian movies, creating immensely popular films on a relatively small budget.

Courageous, in fact, was more successful than Fireproof in its first weekend, grossing $9 million ($2.2 million more than Fireproof), making it the No. 4 movie the week of its debut, and No. 1 if you take into account that the film opened against movies with three times as many screens as Courageous and budgets 20 times more than its $2 million production cost. The film went on to gross $34.5 million at the box office.

God Opening Doors

Stephen Kendrick can’t help but be pleased with the success of Courageous, but contrary to what some might think, he did not go on a wild spending frenzy or flaunt his success as a sign of his arrival in the big time. Instead, with each success he’s become more humble. Kendrick is quick to assign the credit for Sherwood Pictures’ good fortune to God’s answer to fervent prayer. From their first movie, Flywheel (2003), which was produced with $20,000 and ran successfully for six weeks at a single location in Albany; to 2006’s Facing the Giants, which was made for $100,000 and grossed $10 million; to 2008’s Fireproof — $500,000 budget, $33 million gross; and now Courageous, Stephen says it has been God who has opened doors.

Starting with the backing of their church of the movie ministry, and later the backing of Provident Films and TriStar Pictures, success still means giving back to God through supporting their church, their families, and others, with the aim of bringing attention to God’s message of hope.

Kendrick says their goal is to keep improving, and to a large degree they have made much headway in their efforts to do so. However, the stinging reviews of critics such as Rotten Tomatoes, the L.A. Times, and New York’s Village Voice hangs in the air. Stephen, in his customary humility, addresses the critics of Courageous this way: “People don’t need to be afraid of critics and criticism, because sometimes they are your best friends to help you realize how you can grow and how you can do better. When we have read reviews, whether on Rotten Tomatoes or Christian websites, and have seen consistent trends where different people are noticing the same things, then we know that we have to address those issues.”

At the same time, says Kendrick, some of the reviews were clearly anti-Christian anything, good or bad, or so far in leftfield that they did not bear much thought. However, one of the recurring criticisms of the film, from both secular and Christian reviewers, was that it was overly preachy. Kendrick doesn’t back away from that critique.

AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE: In 'Courageous,' Ken Bevel portrays Nathan Hayes, a dedicated police officer trying to avoid the mistakes his absentee father made.

“Every movie preaches,” he says. “The religion of the world is externalized in their art, you look at James Cameron’s movie Avatar; he’s preaching a message about environmentalism and saving the earth. In our situation, when people know that we are Christians, they automatically are super hypersensitive for any kind of [religious] messages to be in the movie, especially when we have been didactic or use dialogue more than imagery to convey the message.”

The charge that the movie “unabashedly preaches to the choir” is right on target, Kendrick says.

“We do want to preach first to the choir, because the church doesn’t need to tell the world to get their marriages together if we don’t have our marriages together. We don’t apologize for it because we believe that God has led us in that direction. Our number one audience is the church. If you look at the way Jesus taught, he taught parables to the masses and the messages were embedded or hidden in the storyline, and then he taught by preaching, like the Sermon on the Mount, up front and overt to his audience. Our movies have been more like the latter. We’re not against doing the symbolic parable type movies, and if the Lord leads us that way, we’ll do it.”

Aiming for Eternal Fruit

Criticisms notwithstanding, overall audiences viewed Courageous as a life-changing film — not simply one that will prompt an emotional buzz and a superficial tear, but one that truly gives viewers, and especially men, something to think about in their personal lives.

And although Kendrick would love to see Hollywood take note of Sherwood Pictures’ success and begin producing more positive fare, his primary aim is to transform souls.

“Eternal fruit is our ultimate goal,” he says. “We pray for fruit that remains. Movies will come and go. Sending a message to Hollywood, or seeing Hollywood make more redemptive movies, those are nice secondary benefits. But our hope is that people will find a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”

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