JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, VA. --
I am a 22-year-old black woman, and this is my fifth Black History Month in the Air Force. Throughout my past few years in the military, each February I have learned that there is so much that I do not know. I’m not referring to the ignorance of a young adult, no, I’m referring to the cracks and crevasses of history, which can sometimes only be filled by those who felt the pain of it first-hand.
On Feb. 4, 2021, I had the pleasure of sitting in on an interview with someone who indeed experienced history first-hand, Dr. Harry Quinton, or as he was known in the 1940s, Sgt. Harry Quinton, an original Tuskegee Airman.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of black pilots and Airmen during WWII, who were involved in an experiment based on the racial presumption that black people could not learn to fly or operate sophisticated machinery. Black Americans, newspapers and civil rights groups began to push for black soldiers to be included. This program was expected to fail, and needless to say, these men overcame and proved skin color doesn’t characterize a person’s value.
“I was born into segregation,” Quinton said. “Going into the military it was the same thing, the only thing that was different, was that I had a uniform and had orders to follow.”
During this interview, Quinton spoke about the early 1900s. He explained how a group of psychologists released a study which said that black people were lazy, cowardly, had little sense of integrity or honor, and could not learn. Their “findings” were later taught to young people in schools as a part of their curriculum.
“They decided who I was before I even got there,” Quinton said. “So they didn’t believe that we could do it. Some still don’t.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were doubted by many, and they exceeded expectations with their proficiency in flying, shooting enemies down and fixing whichever plane needed to be fixed. Quinton said he once heard a rumor that pilots from different units wanted their planes fixed by black mechanics because their reputation became so outstanding.
Today, some people still underestimate Black Americans. But in the academic year of 2015-2016, the National Center of Education released statistics which attested to the barrier shattering progression of black people. These statistics support the consensus that black women were the most educated demographic in America that year, an accomplishment that, like many others, was made possible by the strides of The Tuskegee Airmen.
When men who Quinton served with were deciding to reenlist, he prioritized education after seeing how successful those who attended college were.
“I realized that education was very important,” Quinton said. “The officers were college graduates, they were doing better than me.”
My generation did not endure the pains of segregation. Our road blocks have consisted of not only processing the tragedies of police brutality and white-supremacy, but also spearheading the initiative to change years and years of unconscious-bias and systemic racism.
My experiences intersect with Quinton’s at the struggle to push-forward, because as Black Americans, the bare minimum is not enough. Meeting the standard is not enough. We must go above and beyond.
Black people are more than capable of great heights, and the Tuskegee Airmen raised the bar for us as American Airmen.
“You can’t do what other people do,” Quinton said about the disparity of perceived effort among races. “You have to do just as good or better.”
Quinton witnessed the making of our history. He was a part of a group of men who paved the way for Black Americans today.
“I hope that they will remember what we did for this country,” Quinton said. “I hope that we are not forgotten.”
Being black in America can feel impossible sometimes. But people like Quinton encourage me. Knowing that if he did not have the courage to face the injustices of segregation, we would not be where we are today, encourages me. It inspires me to want to work harder and accomplish more than I ever thought I could.
The Tuskegee Airmen have an incredible influence on our past, present and future, and I hope that more Airmen will take the time to learn that for themselves this Black History Month.
We have come so far as a nation, but we still have work to do.
(The statistics for this article were originally published by National Center of Education and posted https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_ree.asp)