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Elgin celebrates black vets, Tuskegee Airmen

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Updated: March 3, 2014 5:19PM

ELGIN — When the Tuskegee Airmen — America’s first black combat pilots — flew into action in World War II, they really became the nation’s first civil rights movement, the president of the Chicago Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen told 100 people attending the ninth annual Black History Family Festival at Gail Borden Public Library Saturday.

Besides a salute to about 20 local veterans and the Tuskegee Airmen, the day included storyteller Linda Gorham talking about the impact Vietnam left on her father, honoring five outstanding high-school seniors as Future African-American Leaders and a display of dress-parade-style showmanship by the South Shore Drill Team from Chicago.

Head festival organizer Phyllis Folarin and Gail Borden Executive Director Carole Medal said this year’s festival planning committee decided to dedicate it to veterans to keep in tune with the library’s 2013 Big Read program, which focused on the Vietnam War memoir “The Things They Carried.”

Because of the snowstorm and their advanced age, none of the Chicago area’s 10 surviving original Tuskegee pilots was able to attend. But Ken Rapier of Chicago, who is the cousin of original airman Gordon Rapier and is this year’s president of Chicago’s chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Association, gave an inspirational speech challenging young people to change the world and themselves by following the airmen’s example.

Just half a generation younger than the original Tuskegee Airmen, the 67-year-old Rapier said he was able to do something that racial discrimination kept the original 992 Tuskegee pilots from doing — making a career in the civilian world as a commercial pilot.

“The airmen said they were fighting for a Double Victory,” Rapier said. “— victory over fascism in World War II and also victory over racism at home. They conquered fascism, but they did not have the same success with racism in the U.S.”

Rapier said the airmen’s recipe for success can be boiled down to five elements:

“Do not fear greatness.” Too many youth today fear to be genuinely great, he said. “They’re afraid to be on the school honor roll. They only think about swagger,” he said. “Do you think the Tuskegee Airmen didn’t swagger? Of course they did. But they had been on the honor roll, too.”

“Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do.” He said the Army Air Corps set up the program to train black pilots with the intention of having it fail. Air Corps leaders didn’t really believe blacks were smart enough or brave enough to fight in the air. But the pilots proved the bosses wrong, eventually downing 112 German planes and losing 66 men killed in action.

“Set your standard at excellence in everything you do.”

“Remain united. Stick together and help each other achieve a common goal.”

“Use discipline.”

Rapier noted that before the Tuskegee fighter-plane group arrived in Italy during World War II, white fighter pilots assigned to protect B-17 and B-24 bombers would leave the bombers so they could attack German decoy planes, in a hot-dogging effort to glorify themselves by shooting down at least five enemy planes to become an “ace.” But then other German planes would fly in and shoot down the bombers.

By contrast, the Tuskegee men followed commander Benjamin O. Davis’s strict order to stick with the bombers until the Germans attacked. As a result, not a single Tuskegee pilot became an ace. But they also never lost a single bomber crew that they were assigned to protect. Soon the white bomber crews were asking for the “Red Tail” squadrons to escort them.

At first, Rapier said, the bomber crewmen didn’t realize that these red-tailed planes that were keeping them so safe were crewed by black pilots. But when the first group of German Luftwaffe pilots dove into their formation, and the Tuskegee men shot down 12 German planes, the German pilots saw the black faces.

“The Luftwaffe knew these Redtails were African-American before the American bomber crews did,” Rapier said.

Rapier said the Chicago chapter now works with the Experimental Aircraft Association’s “Young Eagles” project to help kids literally to expand their horizons by offering anybody age 8 to 17 a free flight in an airplane. The planes used are two Piper Cherokees painted with red nose and tail like the Tuskegee Airmen’s. For more information, call the Young Eagles hotline at 773-602-2880.

Folarin said that when anyone enters the armed services, “you write a blank check to the United States of America for any amount up to and including your life.”

State Rep. Keith Farnham, D-Elgin, said Vietnam War veterans like him for many years “didn’t receive much recognition for what we had done.”

But the legislator said he was terrifically touched when he attended a high-school reunion in his hometown of Bangor, Maine, and a classmate came up to him and thanked him for his service.

District U46 Superintendent Jose Torres said that during the Vietnam War, the Communist Viet Cong would try to undermine black G.I.s’ morale by putting up signs saying, “Why are you fighting for your country when you still have no rights in your own country?”

The veterans ceremony was emceed by Dr. Wes Scott, a career military officer from Elgin who festival organizers said has more than 30 years service with the Army, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Central Intelligence Agency.

Scott noted that the first person killed in the fight for freedom in America — Boston Massacre victim Crispus Attucks — was an African American.

Top students

The festival honored five seniors from Elgin School District U46 as Future African-American Leaders. Festival organizers and U46 principals recognized the students for their citizenship, community involvement, extracurricular activities and academic achievements.

“We believe these students are excellent role models for others,” said Folarin. “These students are among the best and brightest and have great aspirations for the future.”

Recognized were Elgin High School’s Treasure Smith, Larkin High School’s Elizabeth Oladokun, Streamwood High School’s Kimberlee George Chukwameka, South Elgin High School’s Katelynn Ware and Bartlett High School’s Courtney Jones.

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