Tuskegee Day Trip

By on 18 July, 2016 in Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

This is the story of how I came to be choking back tears while sitting in the trailer of an 18-wheeler on the landing strip of an airfield.

I was technically on property owned by an economically-decimated municipality, but was adjacent to a federally-owned National Historic Site.


The portable movie theater showing “Rise Above.”

The 18-wheeler was idling in the scorching July sun, heat radiating in waves off of the asphalt landing strip. The truck’s engine was running to power the air conditioning that cooled the trailer portion of the vehicle, which was actually a mobile movie theater. It was a traveling exhibit, screening a movie called “Rise Above,” which is partly the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, and partly the story of how some airplane preservationists twice restored a P-51 Mustang.

Why the emotion? Well, first of all, you’ve got the inherently moving story of the Tuskegee Airmen, one of the great stories in American history. Emerging from Jim Crow, performing feats they were told were impossible, risking their lives for a nation that devalued their citizenship — that’s powerful stuff. But the film (watch a preview here) also discusses the costly crusade to lovingly restore a piece of aviation history, a P-51 Mustang that has evolved from a weapon of war into a conversation piece, devoted to telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The film broadens the story out from the familiar story (often inaccurately portrayed by Hollywood) of WWII and the triumph over legal segregation. By including the aircraft preservation story, the militarized tale of racial inclusion also becomes a story about humanity’s timeless dreams of flight, of the power of science and technology and reason. The story of Benjamin Davis is incredible. The story of the human capacity for transcendence is universal. The film is aptly titled because of the Airmen’s ability to overcome cultural and legal barriers, but also because of the determination to continue to push the human experience forward. Gravity is just another hurdle to clear.

The Tuskegee Airmen museum

The Tuskegee Airmen museum

Next to Moton Field is the museum, which has some nice portions, but is poorly-run for a site administered by the normally-impeccable National Parks Service. There was a ranger or two on duty, but there was virtually no promotion or signage for the “open house” portion of the event — with the Rise Above movie truck and the Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron. There was no schedule of events or information about the arrival of the restored Mustang. Even the site’s gift shop was closed and locked, which meant that we couldn’t get a stamp for our National Parks Service passport book. Apparently the guy with the key to the museum gift shop had “gone somewhere” and the earnest volunteer wasn’t sure when he’d be back or how to reach him. Evidently, the National Parks Service doesn’t need revenue from the sale of Tuskegee Airmen-themed books and souvenirs. Either that, or the “open house” concept just doesn’t extend to the gift shop.

Still, there are a few small airplanes on display, and they try to show what it was like when Moton Field was a racially segregated Air Force base, training black soldiers to fight America’s enemies in the 1940s. A few offices have been recreated (filing cabinets! a calendar! a desk with an ashtray on it!), and there are brief biographical sketches of some of the pilots and mechanics. There’s very little discussion of the social context that makes this such a remarkable chapter in American history, and nothing that discusses how the base and the pilots dealt with the racial segregation of being stationed in rural Alabama during that era.

It is interesting to imagine young black pilots studiously poring over details of  battleship silhouettes and the differences between Russian and German uniform insignias so that they don’t accidentally strafe an ally. But for a young child, the 2012 movie “Red Tails” may provide a more exciting jumping off point for telling the story of the Airmen. Nonetheless, for the more patient student of history, there are great nuggets to be uncovered, such as the importance of Elanor Roosevelt’s bias-shattering flight with Alfred “Chief” Anderson. It’s also clear that it was challenging to curate exhibits that largely deal with folks that are still living (or were living when the museum was being planned).

The Carver Museum on the campus of Tuskegee University

The Carver Museum on the campus of Tuskegee University

After the airfield, we went to Tuskegee University, determined to at least get one National Parks Service passport stamp from the George Washington Carver Museum, which is also a National Historic Site. I’d toured the museum fairly recently, but hoped to at least get a glimpse inside The Oaks, the famous mansion where Booker T. Washington lived when he was president and founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which later became the university. Sadly, The Oaks, built by faculty and students with bricks made on the campus, is only open if you schedule a tour. Maybe next time.

The Carver museum, however, must not be missed, and is a great tribute to the staggering intellect of one of America’s titanic geniuses. Carver was something of a polymath, and one of the most populist scientists we have ever seen. The museum makes an outstanding and informative day trip from Montgomery, and is a great excuse to see the lovely campus of Tuskegee University. We were told to also check out the chapel and the cemetery (where Carver, Booker T. Washington and P.H. Polk are buried), but a normal human can only do so much on a scorching Alabama day in July.

One of the coolest things about the Carver museum is the bulletins that Carver wrote. Carver wanted to be sure that his research had applications for common folks, and the useful tips in his bulletins (some of which are for sale in the museum gift shop) are actually still really helpful and practical today. I picked up a copy of “How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table.”

Lunch options in Tuskegee are a bit sparse. Maybe a few restaurants would have been more visible on a weekday, but the only thing we found that seemed to be open was Burger King. That’s too bad, because with a few more signs on the Interstate, a slightly more well-funded advertising and PR campaign, there could be sufficient tourist revenue to support a few more local eateries. There are always plenty of anniversaries related to the events that make Macon County’s landmarks so important, and it shouldn’t be so tough to get information about how to get there, and how to spend money.

Stephen Stetson is a Midtown resident with two cats, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure.

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