The True Legacy of Tuskegee

My grandfather was a Tuskegee Airman and, while his achievements were impressive and inspiring, they never really mattered to me. All that ever mattered were things accolades, money and prestige can't buy. At the same time Pops wasn't a Werthers-original-in-his-pocket kind of grandfather. He was an uncompromising, tough old bird. When I showed him my A-, he asked why it wasn't an A. If I was bawling like a champ, I had better have a broken bone. He was looking for smarts and sharpness. He had high expectations.

So, it took many years for me to understand him, with those last few being a real joy for us both. But, I didn't truly appreciate him as a complex human being until his passing. Fellow members from the East Coast Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.(ECCTAI) spoke at the funeral, sharing stories of his commitment to the organization from its founding. And, most especially, his friends spoke of Grandfather's commitment to young people.

ECCTAI has a Youth in Aviation Program (YIAP), which introduces youth to aviation and trains them to fly.  All those years, I'd never known how he championed the program, or the difference he made in the lives of the young people he mentored through encouragement and his example. To think, we shared a passion for youth empowerment we'd never discussed, and that he'd touched lives so directly and personally.

Now, you might be thinking, "But he did so much for his country as a fighter pilot. And he touched lives by trailblazing." Yes, indeed, he did. However, all too often, we forget that those we admire have had struggles and set-backs. Young Woody Crockett had another path in mind originally. He was a gifted mathematician who teachers called on to substitute for them, but he couldn't afford tuition and dropped out of college to join the Army. Ever a practical person, when he saw an opportunity to earn more income as a pilot, he pursued it. 

But before that life, he was a talented, promising young person who didn't have a system to support the pursuit of his academic dreams. That's the true legacy of the Tuskegee Experiment -- young men who broke barriers and continued to pay it forward for years to come so others could achieve their dreams. They knew it didn't all end with them.

Not everyone gets an opportunity like training at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Some seven decades later, too many young people balance on the precipice - achieve success or become a statistic. And all too often, that barrier to success may be relatively small, but has far reaching impact.  Transportation costs, choosing between food and books, and lack of mentoring can stop a student in her tracks.  So, I encourage you to make an impact in your own corner of the world by:

  • Voting in the KINDcauses competition for the Hypatian Institute Youth Leadership Fellows program we're launching this fall,

  • making a donation to YIAP (contact ECCTAI President Jerry Burton),

  • taking the lead to mentor a young person in your life,

  • providing internships,

  • speaking at workshops for teens, or

  • donating to organizations that provide the wrap-around services to create support networks for promising youth.

And if you comment below, you're absolutely welcome to share how the Tuskegee Airmen have inspired you, but I sure would love to hear how you're helping young people, too.