The Tuskegee Airmen

9.7.17_ExhibitOpening_AH_8327-X3Constant reminders that African Americans were inferior to white people marked towns and cities in the first half of the 20th century. Signs labeled “colored,” and “white” were highly visible by design, meant to constrict freedom based on the color of one’s skin. Heroically, many African American men and women refused to accept these labels, determined to prove their intelligence, strength, and fortitude by fighting for their right to fight. Ultimately, their battle focused on civil rights during and after World War II.

Most people are familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen. They are legendary.

In the Museum’s exhibit Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences During WWII, the exhibit centerpiece focuses on the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous Red Tails pilots whose incredible war exploits became a symbol of African-American participation in World War II. The Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance opened the exhibit on September 7, 2017. Speakers included former Tuskegee Airmen Flight Officer Robert T. McDaniel, Mrs. Erma Bonner-Platte, widow of Tuskegee Airmen instructor Claude Platte Jr., and Dr. J. Todd Moye, Professor of History at the University of North Texas.

Dr. Moye moderated a panel between McDaniel and Bonner-Platte which he began by providing historical background on the discrimination African Americans faced when attempting to enlist and/or serve in the armed forces.

“The title of the exhibit Fighting for the Right to Fight is not just rhetoric…African Americans had to fight for the right to serve their country in World War II in significant numbers and in significant roles,” said Dr. Moye. “The plan coming out of World War I based on supposedly scientific studies—of course we all know they are not scientific—purported to show that African Americans who had served in World War I did not have the leadership qualities, did not have equal intelligence to whites, could not be expected to serve as officers, certainly could not lead white troops, etc., etc.”

Segregation, upheld by the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), along with Jim Crow laws, restricted the civil liberties of African Americans in every sector of society, including the military. African Americans were rejected from serving in the Army Air Services during World War I. This racial discrimination fueled the NAACP and others to work for change in military policies.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential decree that allowed African Americans to join the war effort during World War II. After the decree, the U.S. Army Air Corps trained a limited number of black pilots in Tuskegee, Alabama. The 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

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Pictured Left to Right: Dr. J. Todd Moye, Erma Bonner-Platte, Former Tuskegee Flight Officer Robert T. McDaniel

Former Tuskegee Airmen Flight Officer Robert T. McDaniel attended I.M. Terrell High School in Texas and was drafted into the armed services in 1943. He was later accepted into the U.S. Army Air Corps.

“Of course, [the air force] didn’t really want black folks flying planes because they thought that they weren’t intelligent enough and that they didn’t have the dexterity to operate machines and everything as though you were different physically simply because you were the wrong color,” said McDaniel. “Well, we were not aware of this because we had outstanding teachers at my school.”

McDaniel’s drive, intelligence, and skills led him to surpass the benchmarks for acceptance into the air force as established by the U.S. War Department. McDaniel and Bonner-Platte’s husband, Claude Platte Jr., were two of the 922 pilots trained in Tuskegee, Alabama between 1941 and 1946.

The Tuskegee Airmen proved themselves to be some of the best pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Their first-rate skills and abilities earned them the respect of other bomber crews who often requested them as escorts. The Tuskegee Airmen had a much better record than bombers flown by white pilots.

The accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen showed the world that African Americans deserved more recognition and respect than they had received at home. The end of the war reinvigorated their desire for equality and catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement.

During the exhibit opening, a member of the audience asked McDaniel and Bonner-Platte what messages they might have for the next generation of students regarding their experiences during World War II.

“I want young people to know that they can do anything that any other person can do, with no exceptions, and that they shouldn’t let anyone discourage them from any occupation that they desire to pursue,” said McDaniel.

Bonner-Platte answered the question by recalling a story her husband had repeated many times. When he was a young boy, Platte looked in the air and saw an object flying overhead. He ran up to his father and asked what it was. His father explained it was an airplane, and the man he saw in it was a called a pilot. Platte knew immediately that that’s what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“His father said, ‘son, I’m sorry, but you can’t do that because you’re a negro and they don’t let negroes fly planes,” said Bonner-Platte. “[Claude’s] answer to his father was “I don’t care! When I get big, that’s what I want to be!”

Platte’s father encouraged his son’s passion for aviation by taking his family to Meacham field to watch the planes land and take off. Platte later found himself in Tuskegee in 1939 and joined the Tuskegee Airmen.

The tenacity and determination these men exhibited during a time of segregation, discrimination, and racial inequality serve as an incredible example of perseverance and inspiration for all ages.

-Janet Montealvo Hitt, Marketing Coordinator, Dallas Holocaust Museum

From Filming to Fighting

Stevens_And_His_Crew_France_1944John Ford, Samuel Fuller, and George Stevens produced some of the most popular and critically acclaimed classic movies of all time. Their work ranges from drama to romance to westerns, and they also directed films inspired by their experiences on the battlefield. From February 16 to August 3, the Dallas Holocaust Museum’s special gallery exhibit, Filming the Camps: From Hollywood to Nuremberg John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens, showcased these directors and their documentation of World War II.

When he began his directing career in the 1930s, George Stevens created light-hearted films such as Swing Time (1936) and Gunga Din (1939). In the 1940s, he enlisted in the army to oversee the Combat Motion Picture Unit (IMDB). During his four years overseas, he witnessed tragic events that affected his filmmaking. Stevens responded by creating movies that captured the human experience and influenced viewers. He wanted his films to have profound meaning and moved away from lighthearted entertainment. His more serious post-WWII films include Oscar nominees A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953).

Samuel Fuller, known for his low budget and progressive films, is the only featured filmmaker who did not make his directing debut before the war. Before WWII, he aspired to be a journalist. At age 12, Fuller started in the newspaper business as a paperboy, and by age 17 he was a crime writer for the San Diego Sun. His strong writing skills landed him in Hollywood as a screenwriter, but when WWII broke out, he enlisted in the army. The war became the inspiration for some of his most popular films. After the war, Fuller continued writing screenplays and directed his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949). The screenplays for many of his post-war movies addressed progressive topics for the time, such as interracial relationships in The Crimson Kimono (1959) and feminism in The Naked Kiss (1964). Fuller’s most popular film, The Big Red One (1980), was based on his personal experiences in WWII.

John Ford directed many popular classic movies such as Stagecoach (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941). To this day, he holds the title for the most Oscars won in the category of Best Director (4). Though he was most popular for western films, his Oscar acclaim comes from his more serious dramas. When WWII started, Ford went straight to the front lines to film the action, and for two consecutive years released Academy Award-winning short documentaries, The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943). These films were the first color footage from the war released to the American public.

During The Battle of Midway, the narrator reminds the viewer, “…yes, this really happens.” It was vital to Ford that he successfully portrayed the arduous acts of war. “We assume that many Americans simply do not believe the stories of mass killings of Jews and Anti-Nazi Christians… Those stories are so unfamiliar to the common experience of most Americans that they seem unbelievable” – “Caption Sheets” Units No. 5,6 and 7, titles “Dachau Atrocities.” The directors showcased in Filming the Camps helped American civilians understand the full complexities of war and the Holocaust. As well as assisting the American public, the film and photography captured were also an important factor during the post-war trials. “Human memory is faulty, and because objects constituting physical evidence decompose, change or are lost, it is important that a contemporary record be made of the event in such a form that will constitute an acceptable proof of the occurrence, and afford a method of locating, and afford a method of locating principals and witnesses so far as many be possible at some future time,” – John Ford, wrote in his “Report of Officer Returning from the Field.” The Filming the Camps exhibit exposes the harsh realities of war and the Holocaust uncovered by these directors.

Beginning September 7, 2017, the Museum will present the new special gallery exhibit, Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in WWII.

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In 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson held in favor of racial segregation, maintaining that public institutions were to be kept “separate but equal.”  Almost 45 years later, this system was still prevalent in much of America. In the south, segregation was embodied in the Jim Crow laws.

Executive Order 8802, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, opened war industries to African American workers. However, black soldiers were still segregated from their white counterparts, often forced to work non-combat jobs (as cooks, logistics, stewards, etc.) without proper training. Despite segregation and other obstacles, many African Americans joined the war effort. As American soldiers fought against Nazi ideology, institutionalized prejudice flourished at home. The new exhibit, Fighting for the Right to Fight, uncovers the struggles African Americans faced when trying to fight in WWII.

African Americans joined the war effort hoping to inspire change in America. The Double V Campaign, which spread like wildfire in black communities, called for a victory overseas and a victory for American minorities at home. It began in 1942 when a black man from Wichita, Kansas wrote to The Pittsburgh Courier:

Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?…[Is it] too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life? Is the…America I know worth defending? Will America be a true and pure democracy after this war?…I suggest that while we keep defense and victory in the forefront that we don’t lose sight of our fight for true democracy at home.–James G. Thompson.

After the war, African Americans expected improvements in society, but conditions remained stagnant. Over the next decade, racial tensions grew. Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) which banned segregation in public schools led to the official start of the Civil Rights Movement. Sit-ins, marches, freedom rides, and rallies pushed the limits of race relations in the nation and drove the government to institute necessary legislation against segregation.

Upstanders emerged to oppose hate, injustice, prejudice, and ignorance. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Thurgood Marshall inspired others to stand up and fight for what they believed.

The Civil Rights Movement demanded that the treatment of minorities in America change. Current events bring home the point that this is a work in progress. The Museum special exhibits discussed here will inspire visitors to continue to stand up against injustice and hatred.

Sources:

http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2015junaug/fuller.html

http://www.filmsite.org/bestdirs.html

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0828419/bio

http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/turning-point

http://www.pbs.org/thewar/at_home_civil_rights_minorities.htm

https://www.biography.com/people/john-ford-9298806

http://www.righttofightexhibit.org/home/http://www.righttofightexhibit.org/home/