Fighting for the Double V!


"When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way,

you will command the attention of the world."

George Washington Carver

State 32: Alabama - March 8, 2018

Nate

We woke up at a Walmart in Montgomery well rested and ready for a brand new day. Yesterday, we visited the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement where Rosa Parks was arrested, and we could wait not to see what adventure lie head today! Our first task of the day was a 37 mile drive East to Tuskegee University to learn about the Cross Country Couple's "Famous Person" for Alabama; George Washington Carver. George Washington Carver was a botanist, professor, inventor, environmentalist and humanitarian. Although Carver is immortalized for developing over 300 new products from the peanut, there much more to his legacy then simply being “The Peanut Man”.

Born into slavery in the mid to early 1860’s in present day Diamond, Missouri, George Washington Carver as a child relentlessly pursued an education during a time when schooling was not readily available to African Americans. Mariah Watkins, a mentor to a young Carver, once told him, "You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people". That is exactly what George Washington Carver did! Carver spend most of his youth traveling across the Midwest, living with foster families, and attending any school willing to teach African Americans. Carver earned his high school diploma in Minneapolis, Kansas. After applying to numerous colleges, Carver was accepted into Highland University in Kansas, and then rejected when he arrived due to his race. Undeterred, Carver went on to study at Iowa State Agricultural College where he earned a bachelors and master’s degree in botany. When Carver began his studies at Iowa State in 1891, he was the first black student at the university, and he went on to become the college’s first black faculty member. Booker T. Washington, founder of the predominantly African American college known today as Tuskegee University, recruited Carver in 1896 to be head of the Agriculture Department. Carver would go on to teach and conduct research at Tuskegee for 47 years!

During the early 20th century, cotton was the primary cash crop in the South. Farmers kept planting the same crop of cotton on the same plot of land, and with each passing year, the cotton crop yielded less and less. It was Carver who established that cotton depleted the nitrogen in the soil. Instead, Carter promoted the planting of crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans, which not only restored the nitrogen in the soil, unlike cotton, would also be a food source for farmers. Carver even designed a mobile classroom in the back of a truck he drove throughout the South to take his education out to the fields of the farmers. However, the farmers were not willing to plant unfamiliar crops for which no market existed. In the early 20th century, an invasive pest known as the boll weevil destroyed cotton crops all throughout the South. Families were losing their land and starving, so they were finally ready to listen to what Carver had to teach. Soybeans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts were the South's new cash crops, and remain as such to this very day.

Carver’s research focused on developing new products and applications for peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans along with many additional crops. Carver is credited with inventing over 300 uses for the peanut including: soap, face creams, paper, paint, dyes, animal feed, axle grease, insecticides, glue, medicines, charcoal, coffee, peanut oil and the list goes on and on. Despite popular folklore, Carver did not invent peanut butter. By the 1940’s peanuts were the 6th largest planted crop in the US! Carter gained nationwide attention after being the keynote speaker for the Peanut Growers Association's National Conference in 1920, and for testifying before Congress in 1921 to support passage of a tariff on imported peanuts. President Theodore Roosevelt was an admirer of Carver’s work. Henry Ford was a close lifelong friend, and even paid to have an elevator installed in an elderly Carver's home. In an era of racial segregation, George Washington Carver became the most well-known African American of his time. Despite all of Carver's accomplishments, he rarely cashed his paychecks, often wore torn and tattered clothing, and despite inventing hundreds of products, he only filed for 3 patents. George Washington Carver's life can best be summed up by the inscription on his gravestone, which reads; “He could have added fortune to his fame but he cared for neither. He found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world”.

Tuskegee University has the unique distinction of being the only college in the US in which the entire campus has been designated a National Historic Site. Tuskegee University is also home to the George Washington Carver Museum, and that is exactly where we were heading next. I was able to enter the college without a problem and easily found the Carver museum. However, actually getting into the museum would prove to be quite a challenge. The museum was recessed back below street level, and the entire grounds were surrounded by a large iron fence. We took the grand driving tour around Tuskegee University 3 times, and still could not figure out how to get into that museum! We decided to park Rosie two blocks away, and try our luck on foot. We walked around the fence surrounding the Carver Museum and only found one locked gate. This was getting frustrating! Fortunately, we found a helpful maintenance worker who directed us through a hidden entrance to the other side of the fence. Yippee! After an hour of driving and walking in circles, we finally made it into the George Washington Carver Museum! Please see the pictures below.

The museum featured an interesting array of artifacts related to Carver, which included: his microscope, peanut plant specimens, the truck he used as his mobile classroom, and much more. Please see the pictures below.

From a baby born into slavery, George Washington Carver's desire for education and research for betterment of humanity made him admired by the giants of industry and world leaders of his time, and his work continues of be of great significance to this day. Based on Carver’s research, NASA has included the sweet potato, soybean and the peanut as food to by grown for long-term manned space travel, and Tuskegee University is currently researching how to successfully grow these crops in space!

After departing the Tuskegee University, we drove across town to the National Park depicted on the reverse of the Alabama State Quarter, Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. The Tuskegee Airmen fought in WWII, and were the first African American Pilots in the United States Military. In the 1940’s, leaders within the United States Army Air Forces did not believe African Americans possessed the aptitude, skills, courage, or even the mental and physical capacity to become fighter pilots. After succumbing to the political pressure exerted by civil rights groups, black leaders, and even First Lady; Eleanore Roosevelt, the Air Force decided to train a small number of African American Cadets. A climate for ideal flying year round, the predominantly African American Tuskegee University nearby, and the South’s radical climate of racial segregation made Tuskegee, Alabama the ideal location to train the US military’s first African American Pilots. Tuskegee's Cadets took classes at the University, and learned to fly at Moton Field four miles away. What at the time the Airforce equated as nothing more than as a social experiment doomed to fail, in actuality, resulted in over 992 African American Airforce Pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

The 99th Pursuit Squadron was America's first black flying squadron. As additional Tuskegee Airmen graduated, the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons were formed, and all 4 African American Squadrons were united as the 332nd Fighter Group. To distinguish themselves from other fighter groups, the 322nd painted the tails of their planes red, and they came to be known as “the red tails”. The 322nd flew missions throughout WWII over North Africa, and Italy. Despite being subjected to racism both at home and by the military, their impressive combat record speaks for itself. The Tuskegee Airmen flew 1578 combat missions, 179 bomber escort missions, destroyed 112 enemy aircraft in the air, 150 aircraft on the ground, destroyed 950 enemy ground vehicles, destroyed 40 boats and barges, and destroyed a destroyer. Awards and decorations of the Tuskegee Airman included: 3 Distinguished Unit Citations, 1 Silver Star, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Metals, and 8 Purple Hearts. Of the 992 pilots trained in Tuskegee, 355 were deployed overseas in WWII, 84 lost their lives in accidents or combat, and 32 were captured as prisoners of war.

One of the reasons the Tuskegee Airmen were such an effective fighting and flying unit is because not one pilot sought out individual glory. Each Tuskegee Airman knew as a unit they were fighting for a Double V; victory to win the war against fascism abroad, and victory to win the war against racism at home. The Tuskegee Airmen fought in WWII with skill, they fought with honor, they fought with courage, and they fought for a nation that treated them as second class citizens. When the Tuskegee Airmen returned to the US after fighting in WWII, they exited the plane and saw Military Police Officers holding a sign that read “Whites to the right! Negros to the left!” Renowned American Historian; Stephan Ambrose once highlighted the twisted irony of African American's fighting in WWII when he said “The world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated army.” Unfortunately, defeating Nazi Germany abroad would prove easier than defeating America’s racism at home.

The 477th Medium Bombardment Group was the last of the Tuskegee Airmen to return from WWII, and in March 1945, their unit was relocated to Freeman Field in Indiana. As soon as the 477th arrived the command on base made a point to let them know there were not welcomed there. The commanding officer of the base designated them as trainees despite the fact that each was a commissioned officer. The 477th were housed in a dilapidated building, and were denied entrance into the white officer's club. On April 5, 1945 a small group of the 477th peacefully entered the white officer's club in protest, and all were arrested. Soon thereafter, another group of 477th entered the officers club, and they too were arrested. Then, yet another group from the 477th once again entered the officers club, and were also arrested. Within a 24-hour period, 61 members of the 477th had been placed under arrest for entering the white officer's club.

The commanding officer of the base offered to drop all charges if each of the 477th signed a statement of agreement with the policy of the base’s segregated officer clubs. All 101 Airmen of the 477th refused to sign! Next, the commanding officer of the base ordered the members of the 477th to sign the statement acknowledging the base policy of race segregated officer clubs. Despite knowing full well that disobeying a direct order from a commanding officer can be punishable by death during wartime, all 101 Tuskegee Airmen of the 477th refused to sign! After the media and civil liberty groups learned about what had occurred, the charges against the majority of the 477th officers were dropped, but each received formal reprimands in their permanent file. The same bravery the 477th fought with overseas in WWII, they too fought with upon their return home. It took 50 years for the Air Force to exonerate all of the officers involved in the incident, restore their rank, and remove all letters of reprimand from their records.

Everyone knows Jacky Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus helped launch the Civil Rights Movement. Tragically, most have never heard the Tuskegee Airmen. Their example of bravery in WWII is absent from the pages of high school history books, and their fight for racial equality in America is nowhere to be found on the syllabus of History 101. Historians contribute the bravery of the Tuskegee Airmen in battle as one of primary influences for President Harry Truman signing Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948 abolishing racial segregation in the United States Armed Forces. Furthermore, Historians widely regard the actions of the 477th at Freeman's Field as the first example of civil disobedience in post-civil war America sowing a seed blossoming into the Civil Rights Movement two decades later. Even today, the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen can be seen in prominent African American military leaders such as General Colin Powel, and our 1st African American President & Commander in Chief Barack Obama. President Obama invited all of Tuskegee Airmen to his inauguration. America will be forever indebted and grateful to all of the Tuskegee Airmen for fighting for a “Double Victory”.

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site consists of two airplane hangars located in what was once Moton Field where the Tuskegee Airmen once trained. Inside of the first hanger were two restored aircrafts; P-47 & P-51, which the Tuskegee Airmen flew in WW2. Everything in this hanger down to the supply room had been restored to its original 1941 appearance. The second hanger featured a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, and a series of audio visual displays about their accomplishments and legacy. The most powerful aspect of this national park is not the site itself, but the story of what this site represents. What began as a social experiment rooted in racism, led to a decorated WWII fighting force, desegregation of the US military, and the first act of civil disobedience against segregation at home. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen must be shared with future generations. Please see the pictures below.

After departing the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, we drove 93 miles Northwest to Birmingham where we found a Walmart to spend the night.