There is a serious discussion I’d like to have with two of the Republican state lawmakers from Livingston County, State Sen. Lana Theis and State. Rep. Ann Bollin. Specifically, I’d like them to tell me if it is okay for high school history classes to teach about the Tuskegee Airmen and, if so, how should those lessons be constructed?
I suppose I should include State Rep. Bob Bezotte but a serious discussion with him is like the search for a Northwest Passage: It’s an interesting concept but it isn’t going to happen.
Bollin and, to an ever greater degree, Theis have jumped on the claim that honest teaching about the country’s history of white supremacy is damaging our students and somehow unfair. I was at a meeting where Theis said that teaching about the impact of white supremacy was even making Black children in Livingston County feel bad.
So, while driving in northern Michigan recently I saw a stretch of I-75 dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen and I wondered how – or if — their legacy should be addressed in history classes sanitized by Theis and Bollin.
A teacher could certainly point to the remarkable war record of the Tuskegee Airmen, particularly their skill, courage, and accomplishments. All true, but hardly unique as there were many American servicemen who displayed those traits.
What, then, made the Tuskegee Airmen stand out?
The answer, of course, is that they had to struggle against their own country’s prejudices merely for the ability to risk their lives flying for the United States Air Force in World War II. Prior to that, no Black man had ever been allowed to fly in the armed forces because it ran afoul of the white supremacy credo that Blacks were mentally inferior to whites.
As it turned out, the Tuskegee Airmen were exceptional. The racial mentality still segregated the Black flyers and limited them to providing escort service, a job they performed with such skill that many white pilots specifically asked for them to escort their flights. More than 80 of the Tuskegee Airmen died in a service to their country that they had to fight white supremacy to perform.
The indignities they faced were constant. Not only were they segregated by race but they had to have white commanders because, as explained by General Henry Arnold, the commanding officer of the Army Air Forces, “Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men creating an impossible social situation.”
Rather than return home as war heroes, many Black veterans had to deal with violent voter suppressionand job discrimination. Further, because of racist policies forced through by southern politicians, most Black veterans were denied substantial government assistance, such as found in the G. I. Bill, which helped boost countless white servicemen and their descendants into the middle class world of college degrees, home ownership and generational wealth creation.
So, is it all right to teach this history in Michigan high schools? This is not a purely rhetorical question. In Florida, a textbook publisher has offered an alternate account of the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott in which Rosa Park’s race is never mentioned. In such a world, is it really a stretch to wonder if the race of the Tuskegee Airmen should also be whitewashed from our history books?
That’s the question I’d like our lawmakers to answer.
Rich Perlberg retired ten years ago after a longtime career as a reporter, editor, and general manager for the Brighton Argus, the Livingston County Press, and beginning in the year 2000 the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, the county’s first and only daily newspaper. Rich first came to the county in 1974 and has lived here long enough that he can remember cashing checks at the pharmacy counter of Uber’s drug store in Brighton, but not so long to have a rural road named after him.
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