My husband is a teacher/mentor in the Red Tail youth program at our local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., which teaches local teens about aviation and the heritage of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in World War II.
Every February, Stephan and I attend the organization's annual fund-raising dinner (I actually don't know whether it's an active choice or a happy coincidence that the event always occurs during Black History Month). A few Tuskegee Airmen are always there (the nearly 1,000 Tuskegee aviators were already college educated when they took their pilot training in the early 1940s, so most of the survivors are in their nineties now; many more thousands of Tuskegee Airmen served as ground crew and support personnel), and it's a powerful moment when they take the stage. Seeing these frail men, enduring symbols of greatness, gives me chills every time.
The Tuskegees were not the only groundbreakers to celebrate that night. Our local chapter is named for Maj.Gen. Irene Trowell-Harris. A registered nurse who went on to earn a masters from Yale and a doctorate from Columbia, General Trowell-Harris holds some amazing firsts: the first woman to command a clinic in the National Guard, and the first African American woman to become a general officer in the National Guard. Before retiring, she was the highest ranking woman in the Air National Guard.
The speaker at this year's dinner could give General Trowell-Harris a run for her money. Brig. Gen. Stayce D. Harris was one of the first African-American women to enter flight training in the Air Force Reserves. She has commanded an airlift squadron, an expeditionary operations group and an air refueling wing. Today, she flies long-haul routes for a major airline, still an exceedingly rare role for any woman, let alone an African-American one.
At the dinner, ten $1,000 college scholarships are awarded to local high school students. Putting these promising youths together with such extraordinary trailblazers has a special magic, embodying the Tuskegee motto of "Building on yesterday, looking towards tomorrow."
Like many Americans, I don't know nearly as much about Black history as I should. I fell into attending this dinner because of Stephan's work with the organization, but it has become one of the most meaningful things I do every year. Where else do you get a chance to move among real heroes. During the cocktail hour, General Trowell-Harris, General Harris (they're not related) and I talked about another first: the Pentagon had just lifted the ban on women serving in combat.
My call to action here is to encourage everybody to not just read an article, watch a documentary or view Red Tails, George Lucas's film about the Tuskegees, during Black History Month, though those things are certainly great. Take the opportunity to step into it by attending black history events. I promise you will not regret it.