On November 7, Melrose will welcome members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces to a special event that will be open to the public. The airmen will speak about their experiences at 6:30 p.m. in the performance space of the newly renovated Learning Commons at Melrose High School.
Before World War II, it was the official policy of the U.S. War Department to place black military personnel in separate military units with white officers. That meant that black soldiers had limited possibilities for advancement. Civil rights organizations had advocated for a change in this policy for decades, and in 1939, Congress appropriated funds for the training of black pilots. In 1941 the Army Air Corps set up the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee University. The 99th was the first all-black flying unit, and although they changed designations and locations several times, they were known colloquially as the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Tuskegee Airmen flew over 1,500 combat missions during World War II, and they received three Distinguished Unit Citations; individual airmen received a Silver Star, 96 Distinguished Service Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, and 8 Purple Hearts. However, they also faced discrimination from white superior officers, some of whom were determined to continue segregation despite official orders to integrate military facilities. The Tuskegee Airmen had a reputation for being excellent pilots, and after the war many remained in the military and were in demand as flight instructors for both military and civilian flight schools. Three became generals, and in 2007 the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.
“It is a great honor to have these American heroes come to Melrose,” said Mayor Robert J. Dolan. “They are true civil rights trailblazers, and I invite the entire community to take the opportunity to hear their incredible story and learn from their experiences. I want to thank the Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated for keeping their important story alive for the youth of America and particularly the youth of Melrose. Their deeds should always be remembered.”
The members of the Tuskegee Airmen who will speak in Melrose next week are veterans of World War II and also of an era of important social changes that still resonate today. The program will include a documentary video, a talk by the airmen themselves, and a question and answer session. The event is being co-sponsored by the Melrose Veterans Advisory Board, the Melrose Veterans Memory Project, the Melrose Veterans Services Office, and the office of Mayor Robert J. Dolan. It is open to the public and admission is free. Doors open at 6 p.m.