Research Project and Seminar
This article describes a high school project on the Tuskegee Airmen that took place at Central Alternative High School in Dubuque, Iowa, in the 1997-1998 school year. It is adapted from a longer article that appeared in a publication of Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound, Service at the Heart of Learning: Teachers Writings, edited by Emily Cousins and Amy Mednick (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1999).
I will always remember the day when high school sophomore Drew Brashaw gave a noontime address to the Rotary Club in Dubuque, Iowa. There he stood at the podium, resplendent in his black hobnailed boots and jeans, a black Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, with a lock of blonde hair dyed green sneaking out from under his cap worn backwards with the word Rancid sewn on it. Drew was there to answer questions posed to him by the local Rotarians about the Tuskegee Airmen Research Project his class was working on, and to raise civic and financial support for the effort. The Rotary President phoned me the very next day, and brushed aside my attempted apology for the featured speakers sartorial splendor by saying, John, it was good for some of our members to see Drew, just like that, and hear the knowledge he was able to present. Sometimes you just have to look past the outer appearance and understand that these kids want to be a part of the communitv as well. We were all very impressed with your presentation, and we want the students to come back when this project is over to tell us how things went.
In August 1997, the students in my class had never even heard of the Tuskegee Airmen. Six months later, they had published a book on the Airmen, organized a public seminar, and raised funds for an aircraft restoration to honor the Airmen. What follows is an account of how an academically-oriented service project accomplished far more than all but a few ever would have thought possible. What follows is a chronicle of how a class of at-risk high school students and a group of aging veterans of World War II came together in the spring of 1998 to celebrate their accomplishments and make some history of their own. What follows is a true story of how an audacious dream became a thrilling reality.
The Tuskegee Airmen
This expedition began for me with a personal phone call in June 1997. Having visited the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, several years ago, I thought it the appropriate place to continue my research on the famous all-black air force escort squadron of World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen. This inspiring story of men who overcame institutional prejudice and established a remarkable war combat record has been woefully underreported; our school districts history textbook makes a passing reference to Tuskegee Institute, and its founder, Booker T. Washington, but mentions nothing about the U.S. Army Air Corps cadets of World War II whose names are also linked to that town in Alabama. From my own learning, I knew the Airmen persevered in an era when blacks were deemed incapable of operating, let alone flying, frontline aircraft. Their determination to learn how to fly and to fight for their country during World War II, if only to prove they had the capacity and the willingness to do so, has become the stuff of legend.
In 1944, when the all-black 332nd Fighter Group finally was assigned escort duty to protect 15th Air Force bomber crews who flew the deadly skies of Europe and the Mediterranean, they knew they had arrived. By now, the German Luftwaffe was launching desperate and deadly fighter opposition to stop these bombing raids, whose targets included ball bearing factories in Schweinfort; the infamous oil fields of Ploesti in Nazi-controlled Romania; and Berlin itself. While some fighter escort squadrons in the rest of the air force flew too far away from the bombers in hopes of running up their tallies of aerial kills, others flew too close to adequately intercept incoming Nazi fighters.
In reading the stirring accounts of bomber crews who were escorted by the men of the 332nd, I learned that the Tuskegee Airmenwhat they came to call themselves some thirty years laterquickly developed a respected reputation in the U.S. Army Air Corps for always being on time, and always being in the best flying position to protect the bombers. In over 1,500 total combat missions, the Airmen never lost one American bomber to enemy aircraft. That combat record stands to this day. Several Airmen even sank a German destroyer using only their wing-mounted machine guns, an unprecedented wartime feat. In addition, 450 Airmen earned over 850 air medals and other citations for combat bravery and leadership.
The Air Force Museum operator in Dayton with whom I spoke was most pleasant but she did not know of any Tuskegee Airmen references at the facility. Then suddenly she exclaimed, Wait, I know a man whos a trustee at the Aviation Hall of Fame here in Dayton, and hes a Tuskegee Airman. Ill get you his number. My next phone conversation with Col. Charles I. WilliamsC. I. to his friendswas a most remarkable encounter. You get ahold of my friend Kenny Wofford up there in Minneapolis, he barked. Ill let him know youre going to contact him. Hell tell you about the Red Tail Project going on up there, too. Red Tail Project? What was that?
Col. Kenneth Wofford was ready for me when I called. He said to contact him when (not if) we arrived in Minneapolis; hed give us the grand tour. In early August, my wife and I met Col. Wofford in a Minneapolis restaurant parking lot, and then followed him to the headquarters of the Southern Minnesota Wing of the Confederate Air Force (CAF). With chapters throughout the nation, the CAFs mission is to preserve the nations military aviation history by salvaging and preserving famous aircraft for future generations of Americans. The spry 75-year old Wofford then introduced us to Col. John Schuck, the director of the Red Tail Project. He told us of the latest aircraft restoration project sponsored by the CAFs Southern Minnesota Wing: a P-51C Mustangthe very make and model flown by the Tuskegee Airmen over southern Europe.
As I learned more about the restoration from John, Col. Wofford busily penned a Tuskegee Airmen bibliography for future reference. He also stressed the importance of including all the servicemen and women who comprised this segregated unit. After all, pilots cant fly what isnt serviced and maintained, he observed. Sure, the pilots got the glory, but only because of the support and dedication of the ground personnel. I was beginning to recognize the incredible potential of this project.
During my tenure at Central Alternative High School, many of my social studies classes have been characterized by their community connections. Long before Central adopted the Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound (EL) teaching model, I was a firm believer in having our at-risk population work with and learn from local citizens, and then give something back to the community in the form of a book, a presentation, or some kind of performance-based project. All I had to do now was convince the latest crop of at-risk youth that they could do it: you see, kids, we can write to the Airmen and create a research book compiling their responses (well get their addresses); make some speeches to generate public interest (like the Lions Club and the Kiwanis Club); raise some financial support (just like we did for that South Florida family who got wiped out by hurricane Andrew in 1992, remember?); put on a public seminar at a local college; and maybe just invite a few Airmen to Dubuque!
When school began in August 1997, the class was scheduled to meet for a two-period block for nine weeks. I called it The Tuskegee Airmen Research Project. Offered as a class for one history credit, students could stay with the group for the second quarter, or move on if they needed to. I realized that the project would need to extend into the third quarter as well, to coincide with a nebulous idea of staging a public seminar in February, the culmination of the entire project.
The Iowa Connection
The HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen proved to be an effective tool to help the students begin to learn about the obstacles these men overcame, but it paled in comparison to the personal contacts I made during the summer. The film was based on a true story, but the characters were composites with fictitious names; I had to find a way to make these individuals come alive for the class. When Col. Wofford sent us a list of twenty-five men and womens names and phone numbers, we were on our way. The one problem we faced, however, was that none of the names on the list were local folks. At least thats what I thought, anyway. But the Colonel had done his homework. Work for the Iowa connection, young man, he exhorted before we left Minneapolis. I smiled and nodded, even though I didnt really understand what he meant. Until I got his letter.
Almost as soon as I announced the arrival of Woffords letter, senior Tony Culpepper set himself to correspond with everyone on the list. He had no prior knowledge of the Airmen, but he instantly saw the wisdom in contacting each one personally to get their individual perspectives. As a class, we discussed questions that might be included in a good questionnaire. Before long, Tony got the idea. Eventually, he would quickly stick his head in the room for attendance, then disappear. He typically spent the entire two class periods in the learning center, hunched over the computer, typing away, crafting his questionnaire. He was in a zone.
When I asked the students what they thought of inviting a few Airmen to town, no one said it was a bad idea, but everyone had at least one question and was not shy about asking it. Would they even want to come? After all, most of these veterans are in their 70s. What would they do when they got here? Where would they stay? How much would it cost? Where would we get the money? In a small school such as ours, fund-raising was not one of our fortes. I translated student questions into project assignments, the first being to research accommodations. Christina Hinkel said shed be willing to write letters to local motels, but didnt know how to construct a business letter. Now there was a purpose: to learn how to create a persuasive letter, and to make it look just right.
After considerable thought, I assigned myself the task of calling some Airmen and inviting them to Dubuque. At this stage, I felt I had the best overview of the project, and didnt want to have the Airmen decline to participate simply because a student couldnt answer all their questions over the phone. Near the top of the list was Airman Lee Archer, who was credited with being the Tuskegee Airman with the highest number of combat victories in the Mediterranean Theater of
Operations. He had also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross with sixteen Oak Clusters, and had flown 169 combat missions. (Fifty was the average number for white pilots, after which theyd be reassigned to less hazardous duty.) Yes, he said, the 23rd of February is open. Ill pencil you in right now.
Alongside the name of Tuskegee Airman Robert Martin of Chicago, Col. Wofford had typed the three-word phrase, Dubuque school system. I didnt think much about it. Over the years, our citys ethnic mix had not included many African Americans; I simply could not imagine a Tuskegee Airman connection with it, directly or indirectly. But then again, they say an expedition is a journey into the unknown, right? When Airman Bob Martin came on the line, he exclaimed, Oh, yes, John, Ken told me all about your project, I think its just wonderful. How can I help? I asked him what the cryptic Dubuque school system meant. Why, I attended Lincoln Elementary, Washington Junior High, and I graduated from Dubuque Senior High School in 1936, he replied. I almost dropped the phone. I was born in Dubuque, and my father was a podiatrist.
Another name on the Wofford list was Airman Joe Gomer, who grew up in Iowa Falls, Iowa, and was now living in Duluth. He agreed to join us, too, and cracked, As long as you have something for me to do. I dont want to be sitting in my hotel room all day! Airman Luther Smith, whose mother was a native Dubuquer (!), resided in Des Moines when the war broke out; these days he was just a stones throw away in Pennsylvania. When I told him the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association might afford him the opportunity to take a ride in a restored AT-6 trainer like the Airmen trained in, he responded, Well, you wont have to ask me twice! The genius of Col. Woffords Iowa connection had become apparent. For good measure, we also invited Red Tail Project Director Col. John Schuck and his wife, Diane.
A Broader View of World War II
After watching The Tuskeegee Airmen and discussing its significance, the classroom became a beehive of activity. Students were beginning to make surprising connections between the Airmen and what they already knew about the World War II era. Werent we fighting against Hitler because of his racist policies towards the Jews? asked Central senior Russ Lewis. Yes, I responded. The belief that some individuals were inferior led to the creation of Nazi extermination camps. But we were being racist against black people in America at the same time, Russ shot back. I think we need to write about that, too. You know, compare Hitlers views and ours. Maybe we were just as guilty. Good idea, I responded. Well turn that research paper into a chapter in our book. Comments and questions generated more comments and questions.
C. J. Patters groused, Why did they call themselves Tuskegee Airmen? I pointed him to some reference material in the learning center on Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute, and suggested he begin his research there. I think we need to know about what the Airmen thought about being discriminated against, and why they would want to fight for a country that didnt support them, Joey Burns piped up. I told him that he should confer with his research buddy Tony right away and make sure those kinds of questions got included in the questionnaire that soon would be mailed out.
Were there any women pilots in those days? asked Emily Sanders. My personal study revealed that Bessie Coleman was a dynamic black aviatrix in the 1920s. Even though Bessie had no direct relation to the Airmen, Miss Emily found her topic and never looked back. When I challenged her to see if a connection could be made to the Airmen, she concluded that Bessie could have been a role model for the black youth of that day and for the future cadets of Tuskegee. Therefore, she should be in our book. Go for it, I told her.
By now, some students were carefully studying several videotapes on the Airmen, including Wings for This Man, the U. S. Army Air Corpss official account of the Tuskegee story narrated by Ronald Reagan. Others were reading and learning from the Airmens responses that Tony was now receiving. And still others were developing their own topicsfrom what it was like to have to stand up and give a speech to what race relations in the United States were before World War II. Just as well, I thought, because in order for them to raise funds, the students would really have to know what they were talking about first. Study now. Raise money later.
The Dubuque chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) is composed of commercial and military flying enthusiasts. Many chapters, including Dubuques, are sponsors of a special activity called The Young Eagles Program. The goal is to provide free opportunities for two million young people to experience the exhilaration of flight by the year 2000. The no cost part of the deal particularly appealed to me. I made a few inquiries in mid-November and announced one day in class that whenever weekend atmospheric conditions were right, there would be an opportunity for any and all takers to ride in a real plane, courtesy of the Dubuque EAA. Four brave souls stepped forward, and soon became the Weather Channe#146;s biggest fans.
Unless their names appear in the police beat or their faces grace the sports pages, the opportunities for traditional high school students to get recognized in local newspapers are pretty slim; academic endeavors are rarely reported. For students who havent experienced much academic success and attend alternative schools, where organized sports teams typically do not even exist, the chances of making the papers are virtually nil. Here were the makings of a great story: Central students discovering the thrill of flight and making a historical connection to the Tuskegee Airmen.
On a cold, crisp, and spectacularly clear December Sunday afternoon, a newspaper reporter and photographer showed up at the airport where the students were waiting for their flight. When the Monday morning edition of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald arrived, thereon the front page no lesswas a color photo of Central student Jamaica Rupert and her buddies in the cockpit of a Cessna 150 with their head sets on, looking like they owned the airport. The headline read, Central Students Identify with Airmen.
The students were now telling the story on their own, and the article was replete with great quotes. An interesting parallel between the perceptions the military had of the Airmen fifty years ago and the publics impression of alternative students today was not lost on Drew Brashaw: These guys had something to prove. The world didnt believe that Black men could fly planes, let alone protect bombers. Sometimes it feels like we have something to prove, too, just because we go to Central. Some people think were 1azy, and wont ever make anything of ourselves. Anthony Sproule added, Yeah, these men had to fight to fight. They were fighting to stop oppression over there, but they were still oppressed over here. Co-pilot Jamaica added, When youre up there in the plane, youre going 150 mph, but it feels like 10. The pilots in the P-51s went about 375 mph. I have so many things I want to ask the Airmen. Student Sarah Schmerbach put the whole day in perspective: When you think of history, you think of dead people. This project is really helping history come alive for us. Were actually going to meet some of these men and talk with them. Thats really exciting for something thats school-related.
In the meantime, Tony Culpepper and fellow senior Chris Coffman volunteered to give a speech to the members of the local EAA to raise money for our expenses. On the way to the meeting one rainy December evening, these intrepid researchers ignored my repeated suggestions to write a few things down to help organize their thoughts before they addressed the group. Neither presentation was very good. On the way home, their front-to-back-seat conversation focused exclusively on how they should have done a better job preparing and giving their speeches. I kept quiet and drove, listening to their impromptu critique session. If that wasnt brass tacks discovery learning, I dont know what was. (Evidently, the EAA audience saw past the halting addresses because they contributed $500 to the cause!)
At the start of the second quarter, my teaching colleague Tim Ebeling joined me. In order to help the students develop their public speaking skills, Tim set up a series of practice runs for students brave enough to venture into the community. What makes for a successful and effective public speech? Tim queried. Well, you have to make good eye contact, said Amanda Greve. You need to have a good introduction, added Chris Coffman. I stared at him intently, hoping to telepathically prod him into remembering and repeating some of those how-to-give-a-speech pearls of wisdom he voiced in the car. You have to give people the idea that you know what youre talking about, quipped Sara Schmerbach. The students responses became a rubric that served them well as they evaluated and critiqued each others speeches before other volunteers ventured into the community.
The Research Book
Nowadays, some traditional high school students will submit essays with bloated margins and 18-point type which bleeds onto a second page by a line or two, add a cover page and submit it as a three-page report. Our students are no different. So, after establishing the guidelines of typing uniformity for the research papers (double-spaced, 12-point type, thank you), Tim and I set out to see how big this book would be. Sitting in our customary circle, we polled the students to get a conservative estimate for how many pages each writing project was.
In the world of an alternative education student, a book may not necessarily be judged by its cover, but the number of its pages always receives solemn consideration. On our first go round, we tallied up 139 pages! No one said anything, but I knew everyone was thinking: how big will this be when were done? Remember, Tim said, this total doesnt include a page reflection from each of you, complete with your photograph; responses from Airmen yet to be received; and perhaps observations from some of you on what it was like to fly with Bill Fitch or give a speech to the Kiwanis Club. We no longer used the diminutive word booklet to describe the compiled research.
Everyone likes to get mail. Even teachers. Sadly, most of what we find stuffed in our pigeon holes at school quickly winds up in the circular file, er, recycle bin. But when hand-written envelopes began to appear in my box addressed to Mr. Tony Culpepper, with return addresses from Airmen whose names appeared on the Colone#146;s listand, as more students were discovering, in books about the AirmenI had all I could do to keep from opening them up myself. I thought, those are autographed letters! If not already historicallv significant, they will one day be valuable to historians and collectors.
Tony was now getting several letters a week, so Tim and I had him pick out a few choice responses to read to the entire class. As Tony leafed through his groaning notebook, everyone sat rapt with attention. Why would you want to fight for a country that didnt support you?, was one of many insightful questions Tony included in the questionnaire after talking with Joey Burns. This Airman, a Mr. Watson, he writes that it was his country, and the letters in his country are all capitalized, Tony told his mates. Laughing in anticipation, Tony sifted through more pages of the questionnaire and then continued, Oh yeah, here it is. I asked him what went through his mind when he first soloed at Tuskegee. Mr. Watson says here, My only thought was, how in the hell am I going to land this thing in one piece? Students who flew with the EAA laughed the loudest on that one.
Tony continued, He said that he is very glad we are doing this research. Here was an actual letter, written by an actual Airman, with actual answers to our questions. No longer depending on secondary sources of information for their study, now the students were making personal connections with the men who made history. Then Tony dropped a bombshell on all of us. And Mr. Watson says he wants to buy a copy of the research when its done. We had just made our first sale of a book that wasnt even in its final form yet.
The research book was evolving into something more than just a recitation of the Airmens wartime exploits. The students wanted to tell the whole Tuskegee story, including what race relations in America were before and during the war; what Hitlers racial theories were, and how disturbingly similar they were to what was being practiced in the States; what is the Confederate Air Force; and what it was like to fly with the EAA, to list just a few topics. But writing to be read is easier said than done.
Tim deserves the credit for being tenaciously committed to the joy of drafts and revision. Not everyone in the class possessed outstanding composition skills, and for some students, the specter of red-ink comments on their drafts was downright discouraging. On some days, a few students wanted Tims head on a pole. As Tim saw it, It is my job as a teacher of writing to assist the students in discovering their voice ... The students wanted to be sure that their written words were precise and accurate. Because they had made personal connections with the Airmen, their writing was rich with emotion. To get students to write, they must believe they have something to say; there was plenty to say about the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Airmen and the Seminar
Airman Joe Gomers flight from Minneapolis arrived on Friday, February 20, at about 4 p.m. The rest of the Airmen arrived on Saturday afternoon, and many of the students were on hand to welcome them at the airport, as were several Central teachers and more than a few local citizens who had been following our exploits from the get go. By now, the students had pictures of all the Airmen and knew them on sight. While they and their guests mingled in the airport lobby, I went away by myself in a corner and wept. In my wildest imaginings just five months ago, never could I have expected that all of this would be coming together so perfectly. On Monday morning, the four Airmen, along with Red Tail Project director John Schuck and his wife, Diane, spent time with the students in the very classroom where so much had taken place to get us to this day.
No one had any idea how many people would show up at the Marie Graber Ballroom at Loras College. Our Iowa winter had been unseasonably warm; storm clouds threatened rain. In the newly-built spacious ballroom, the students set up their display tables, complete with drafts, charts, scale aircraft models, correspondence, photographs, and of course, copies of the research book which could be purchased for cash. Above them, P-51 mobiles responded slowly to the air-conditioner. Made by students in art classes, these mobiles were later autographed by the Airmen and taken away as souvenirs. Additional Mustang aircraft were taped to the walls; when the mini-spotlights were turned on, every cardboard cutout was strikingly highlighted.
The television klieg lights and the din of the crowd gave the place an expectant rally atmosphere. Present in the crowd were long-time residents of Dubuque who came to say hello to the hometown boy-made-good, Bob Martin; bomber crew veterans who came to say thank you to the men who escorted their planes to the targets and back; students from the University of Wisconsin, Platteville; students from most of Dubuques high schools and colleges; proud family members who marveled at what their Central students had accomplished; and former GIs and aviation buffs who wanted to shake the hands of the men who flew P-51s across Europe. Loras College officials later estimated the audience at nearly 900 people. Thats more than four times the number of students in our entire school.
At precisely 7 p.m., Master of Ceremonies Christopher Coffman made his way to the podium to open the formal portion of the proceedings; the crowd noise ended abruptly. After welcoming comments by our principal and Loras College representatives, the studentsreading from well-thought-out and profoundly moving speechesintroduced the Airmen and the Red Tail Project director. Each guest received a standing ovation as he took the podium and after concluding his remarks. Lee, Luther, Bob, Joe, and John all praised the students for their tremendous effort in researching and presenting the Tuskegee Airmen story to the public. The Airmen shared personal wartime experiences of discrimination and combat success, declaring that they were not bitter, but became stronger individuals for having gone through the experience.
During the question and answer period after the formal presentation, Dr. James Bowman rose from his seat in the audience and addressed the citizens of Dubuque. The retired assistant superintendent of the Des Moines public school system, Bowman too was a Tuskegee Airman, class of 1945A, who flew P40s and P-47s. I am amazed by what I have seen here tonight, he said to the assembled throng. Living in Des Moines, you hear stories about Dubuque, how this town is not very supportive of minority people, and that there isnt much to be expected here. (Indeed, our city had experienced some rather unpleasant racial strife in the 1980s that actually made the front page of The New York Times; despite the fact that the towns minority population was just about 4 percent of the total, some folks could not give up their prejudices.) But what you have done here tonight is very important, Bowman continued. You have made it your task to correct a historical wrong. He told me later, What is even more significant is that you and most of your students are not African Americans. You made it a responsibility for the students to portray history accurately.
Retired General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., was the commanding officer of the 332nd Fighter Group. We made sure he received a copy of the research book and a special videotape with all the local news coverage, plus a segment from Iowa Public Television. General Davis wrote to say, Your students, in my opinion, did indeed capture the essential traits of the participants in the Tuskegee Experiment that made them the greatest flying unit that it has been my privilege to command.
One could say that the seminar didnt go exactly as planned, Amanda Greve and Tiffiny Green wrote for the Alt, a weekly teen page in the Telegraph Herald. More people showed up than expected. The students sold more books than anticipated, and they raised more than $3,000 for the Red Tail Project. We believe the Central students and the Tuskegee Airmen have this in common: They both exceeded the expectations others had set for them.
In fact, by the end of the school year, the students had raised $5,252 for the airplane restoration, and the State of Minnesota would be matching their dollar amount. Including revenue from all sources, the grand total generated by the entire project that year eventually came to about $13,000. A third edition of the research book is now being sold, and during the summer of 2000 it brought in an additional amount of almost $1,000 for the Red Tail Project.
Letters of congratulations continue to arrive at school. They are mostly written in long-hand by the Airmen who responded to the survey, by their wives, or by other family members. But because most of the students in the class were graduating seniors who have since gone on to the next phase of their lives, they probably wont read many of these letters. At first I felt badly about this, because the comments written to the students are so poignant and heartfelt. You have told our story, is the common refrain. I am telling everyone I meet about the students in Iowa who wrote this book.
But as I look back on the whole endeavor, I see student smiles when our goals were reached or surpassed; I sense the pride and workmanship that made the research book the impressive document it is; and I bear witness to the lives of students changed forever because of the incredible interaction they had with men nearly four times their age, but with whom they really had so much in common. The letters are just icing on the cake.
Soon after the school year came to an end, friends and even teachers from other schools came up to me and asked, What are you going to do to top this? My answer is that this project can never be equaled; it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a league all its own. However, given the same philosophy of teaching we have that insists on having students assume responsibility for their own learning, challenges them to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, provides an opportunity for students to tell their story to a larger audience, and builds an attitude of service into the curriculumwhatever the topic is, were in for some life-changing excitement.
A transplanted New Yorker, John Adelmann has taught social studies at Central Alternative High School in Dubuque, Iowa, since 1975. Currently, he is a member of the Minneapolis-based Red Tail Project Educational Advisory Board, whose mission is to combine the story of the Tuskegee Airmen with the restoration of the P-51 Mustang to inspire students nationwide.