Twenty-three U.S. history students from Oneonta High School had the opportunity to celebrate Veterans Day differently this year. The group, along with five adult chaperones and their driver, spent part of that day at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site listening to two authors, one a daughter, and both scholars, of the airmen. All regretted that none of the few remaining members of that historic group were present for the presentations. Monday (The Capitol and Tuskegee)
That activity marked one of several the group had that day and prior. Leaving Oneonta at 5:30 Monday morning, the students arrived in Montgomery for a tour of the state capitol. Tour guide Aroine Irby captured the students’ attention with stories of the capitol architecture, its Jefferson Davis inaugural star, the governors Wallaces, his direct experiences in the Selma to Montgomery March, and that march’s upcoming 50th anniversary commemoration.
Traveling then to Tuskegee University, the students took a campus tour led by three university students, revealing some of the institution’s history and campus life.
Breaking for lunch, members enjoyed the cafeteria buffet in historic Tompkins Hall, at its original construction one of the nation’s largest brick buildings, built of studentmade bricks, and by student workers. The hall serves as a testament to Booker T. Washington’s belief in preparing students in both academic- and manual-labor. Tuskegee Legacy Museum
Tuskegee’s Legacy Museum offered exhibits for the visitors on the HeLa Cell experiment and on the infamous 1932-1972 Macon County study on the effects of untreated syphilis in African-American males. The museum guide detailed some of the life of Henrietta Lacks, a poor, young, black, Virginia mother who died at age 31 of what began as cervical cancer, and the HeLa immortal cell line which researchers cloned from her harvested cells.
Doctors at Johns Hopkins, where she had gone for treatment, found Lacks’s cells had a tremendous reproductive capacity and prepared them for research studies. From those 1951 cells replicated untold times researchers prepared polio vaccines at Tuskegee and other locations and have used them for continued research on numerous diseases to this day.
The syphilis study led to changes requiring informed consent of research patients as the nation learned in 1972 of the 40-year study. In that study of almost 600 men, scientists had not informed nearly 400 patients they found with syphilis, allowing the spread of the disease to their families and other contacts. The health workers also did not advise the patients of the effective penicillin treatment found in 1947. Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Students then visited the anticipated centerpiece of the day’s activities, the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. Tourists there may visit two hangars used during the “Tuskegee Experiment,” the government’s effort to determine the validity of claims that blacks were not capable of serving as pilots.
The restored hangars house planes from the period and other artifacts related to the training of African-American pilots and support personnel during World War II. In addition to the displays, artifacts, and an informational video, students enjoyed the opportunity to try on uniforms from the period and pose for photographs. Tuskegee National Guard Armory
In order to keep costs affordable, teacher Jim Kilgore had sought to rent the Tuskegee Armory for the night’s stay. In pursuing that, he met Oneonta recruiter Sgt. 1st Class Charles Bussey. Sgt. Bussey quickly caught the excitement of the trip and arranged free use of the armory, offered his services as an armory supervisor, and pledged to provide pizza and drinks for the evening meal. Bussey also agreed to provide his computer and projection equipment for the students to see the video “The Tuskegee Airmen” which Kilgore had obtained from the Oneonta Public Library.
The group had learned the university band was to practice that evening. After unloading the luggage and resting a few minutes at the armory, members headed back to campus to hear the band, only to learn the practice had been cancelled.
With the unexpected break, the students had time to sit on the bus or just create their own entertainment. All chose to abandon the bus and begin free play. That creative time provided what became another highlight.
In their evaluations of the trip, many of the students wrote of the camaraderie they found through kick-the-can, capture-thehacky sack, and freeze tag. Jessie Jones said it succinctly,“The most memorable part of the trip was when all of us ran around playing outside like we were in elementary again. . . .Overall, I enjoyed the people that went with me on this trip. They are the ones that probably made this trip as great as it was.”
Jessica Chacon had similar praise in labeling that experience,“…a great way to pass the time instead of the usual being on our phones.”
The armory experience provided its own lasting memories. Females discovered that the officers’ showers to which they had been assigned had stalls but no cold water. Males found that only three of their six enlisted men’s communal showers had both hot and cold water. With the women in distress, the men allowed them the use of their showers and guarded to assure no one mistakenly intruded. Of the communal showers, baseball player Reece Matthews quipped,“You made sure you kept your eyes at head level.”
With some delayed effort all the ladies got their showers that evening, and everyone had pizza and watched the Tuskegee Airmen video. That video had several, including Bussey, speaking of how it touched them. He told the students he learned much he had not previously known of the conditions the airmen faced and overcame.
Beyond the showers, some found that while Army cots are comfortable, they are also unforgiving of any movement. With 19 males in one room, some had their sleep frequently interrupted by cots that creaked at the slightest shift. Veterans Day (Campus Sites and Veterans Program)
Tuesday morning, after showering, refolding cots, sweeping floors, cleaning showers, and generally restoring the armory to near its Monday condition, the adventurers returned to campus for morning breakfast in the cafeteria. Breakfast completed, the group toured The Oaks, Booker T. Washing- ton’s home, also built by student workers, toured the George Washington Carver Museum, visited gravesites for the two and returned to the airmen site for a Veterans Day program.
With scheduled tours in Montgomery, chaperones made plans to hear only one of the two scheduled book talks. When author, motivational speaker, and airmen daughter Anne Palmer learned students would be leaving before her talk, she provided them a personal abbreviated presentation.
Mississippi native and author Zellie Orr spoke of her discovery and book,“The First Top Guns.” Having chatted with an airman living in her hometown, Orr learned that the Tuskegee Airmen had won the first Top Gun competition in 1949.
Orr capsulized well the challenges and successes of the airmen with a story. She reported that some of the airplane mechanics had gone to Las Vegas’s Flamingo resort lounge the night before the competition and were turned away because of its then segregated policy. The next evening they were honored at the same site as winners of the gunnery competition.
She found the location of the winners’ trophy and was told it had been placed in permanent storage never to be public again. Her dogged pursuit finally led to a more public recognition that the men of the “Tuskegee Experiment” were indeed capable of flight. Veterans Day (Rosenwald School)
Heading for Montgomery, tour members detoured to The Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and its adjacent Rosenwald School on the outskirts of Notasulga. The church served as one of the pick-up sites for Tuskegee “syphilis” patients.
The school remains a reminder of the efforts of Julius Rosenwald to advance African-American education in the rural South. Rosenwald, a Sears-Roebuck clothing supplier and later CEO and a 20-year member of the Tuskegee Institute’s Board of Directors, promoted improved school facilities by funding Tuskegee architectural designs for state-of-the-art rural schools. Instituting a matching grant program between black communities and the $70 million Rosenwald Fund, the project reportedly helped finance more than 4900 schools in 15 states and over 800 southern counties. Veterans Day (Montgomery)
In Montgomery after lunch, bus driver Geoff Smith parked next to the state judicial building as students walked to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial. The remembrance, created by Vietnam Memorial designer Maya Lin, lists the names of 40 civil rights martyrs etched on a black granite table with water flowing across it. Behind the table, water flows over a matching wall inscribed with a partial King quote: “. . . until justice runs down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
From the memorial, students walked a short distance to the Dexter Avenue – King Memorial Church. Charismatic Wanda Battle greeted the students and escorted them on a tour which included Dr. King’s church study and an outstanding mural covering much of the civil rights movement. The tour ended in the sanctuary with Battle continuing her presentation and including parts of four songs which she rendered beautifully. Battle noted that despite local antagonism to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 and the civil rights movement in general, the church, which had served as a rallying point for those activities, never suffered an attack.
For the concluding event, the group rode several blocks to the church’s former parsonage where King and his family lived during the almost six years he served Dexter Avenue. The century-old house was not as fortunate as the church, suffering two bomb attacks while the Kings resided there.
A few items in the house remain from the King residency; others are of the time period. The home continued as a parsonage until 1992. Its most dramatic feature may be the pock-marked front porch where one of the two bombs left cracks in the cement.
The weary band headed back to Oneonta, arriving a bit over 36 hours and 375 miles after their departure. In his evaluation, Alex Espinoza noted,“The trip taught me about so many things that a textbook can’t show you and that you can only experience in person. You may get some information from pictures but nothing is like seeing the real thing, live and in person.”
A note from the teacher: Many have expressed their appreciation for the trip. Without the chaperones no one could have had the experience. Those sacrificial investors were parents Rev. Tony and Shannon Jones, former city school board member and driver Geoff Smith and his wife Marla, and retired elementary teacher-administrator Beverly Ellis. Local businesses Covered Bridge Inn and Suites, Heritage Dental, and HomeTown Bank provided items for students to reduce their packing loads.