By Air Force Master Sgt. Tracy DeMarco
Air Force District of Washington
WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2011 – More than 650 people gathered Aug. 3-7 for the 40th annual Tuskegee Airmen convention, which featured events throughout the national capital region.
This year’s theme, “70 Years of Aviation Excellence: Then, Now, the Future,” celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Tuskegee Airmen legacy.
Sixty-seven original Tuskegee Airmen registered for the convention; among them was retired Col. Charles E. McGee.
“Because we were segregated, we were together over a long time, so some lifelong friendships have come out of that experience,” McGee said. “Gathering at conventions is our way of keeping in touch, even though our numbers are dropping off. Conventions are a chance for us to share with others in the different communities.”
The week kicked off Aug. 3 with the final flight of an Army 1944 PT-13 Stearman biplane, as it flew along the Potomac River. The aircraft originally was used to train Tuskegee pilots before retiring from military service as a crop duster.
Recognized as a vital piece of aviation and African-American history, the biplane — named the “Spirit of Tuskegee” — will be viewed by future generations at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
The Tuskegee Airmen also honored their brethren who lost their lives in service to their country with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Air Force Memorial, and they received a sneak peak of the national memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. that is set to open to the public later this month on the National Mall.
Aug. 4 was set aside to inspire the aviators of tomorrow. About 400 teenagers from across the nation began their day at Joint Base Andrews, Md. They toured static aircraft displays, watched operational demonstrations and tried on military gear. The teens then traveled to the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at the National Harbor where they enjoyed a lunch with influential aviation and military leaders, including the Tuskegee Airmen.
“It’s going great,” said Trent Dudley, the president of the Tuskegee Airmen’s East Coast chapter and event coordinator. “Any time you can link the original airmen with the youth is wonderful.”
McGee noted the importance of continuing the Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy.
“The way I put it when I talk to 7th graders or 8th graders is they need to realize that 25 years from now what’s going on in the country is going to be what they’re doing,” he said. “So we hope that they’re still focused to preserve our freedoms and still seek equal opportunity and equal access for all.”
The Aug. 4 focus turned to the military members making sacrifices in today’s wars. An executive and senior-leader panel fielded questions from an almost all-military audience. Topics included possible changes to the military retirement system, diversity in the military and mentoring.
“Diversity is a military necessity,” said Jarris Taylor Jr., deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for strategic diversity integration. “Diversity is a leadership and managerial philosophy, not military equal opportunity. It’s about organizational change.”
“The more diverse that we are, the better,” said retired Lt. Col. James C. Warren, an original Tuskegee Airman. “If we quit using hyphenations in America, we’ll get along much better. I’m not an African-American — I’m an American citizen.”
Warren has attended 39 of the 40 Tuskegee Airmen conventions. He missed one because he was still on active duty serving in the Vietnam War.
Halfway through the day Aug. 5, a large crowd of hotel staff and guests lined the hallway outside the ballroom used for the convention. When the Tuskegee Airmen and current military service members broke for lunch, they were greeted with an explosion of clapping and cheering.
“It’s such an honor for us to be able to host the Tuskegee Airmen. They are American icons,” said Aimie Gorrell, the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center director of public relations. “We were thrilled that about 400 of our staff were able to take time away from their work today to come out and do what we call a ’standing ovation.’ We do a standing ovation for our very most VIP guests and customers, and certainly the Tuskegee Airmen are our true VIPs today.”
The convention served as a reminder of just how diverse American society has become in present day, McGee said.
“It’s been rewarding to be a part of the experience,” McGee said, “and see that change has taken place. I believe it’s for the good. Our country is more diverse now than it was then, so we need to stay on that road, … because talent doesn’t come with happenstance of birth.”