I’m ashamed to say that I know the name Jesse Owens but not the name of the Tuskegee Airman I met several years ago in North Myrtle Beach.
It was a happenstance meeting.
I was covering the area’s real estate market and doing a feature on a new kind of development, one in which there was a public-private partnership that combined subsidized and market-priced rentals, a new way to make housing affordable while providing a way for developers to make a profit.
One of the Airmen just happened to be at the development the day I was doing some interviewing.
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I spoke with his wife, got part of his story and contact information and quickly refocused on the real estate market.
I told myself I’d contact him later.
I never did.
I get to redeem myself Saturday morning at the Georgetown County Airport.
About six Tuskegee Airmen will be honored during an event that will include model airplane demonstrations and speeches by some of the men.
I plan to shake their hands and not forget their names.
I know Owens’ name because he’s one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all-time. USA Track and Field’s highest honor is named after him.
His story is legendary and elicits a boatload of American pride.
His performance in the 1936 Summer Olympics, when he won four gold medals, stands out among the best achievements in sports history. He did it in Germany as Adolf Hitler watched, providing a real-life rebuttal to the evil things Hitler believed.
Owens’ life is one that should be remembered, his story told for generations.
But so should what the Tuskegee Airmen did.
During a period in which their kind was being treated as second-class citizens in this country – and sometimes worse – they stood up for America anyway, and were willing to sacrifice everything to help it achieve its highest ideals.
They didn’t sulk and stand on the sidelines even though black men such as them faced the possibility of being lynched and shut out of job opportunities and the ability to even buy real estate.
They took to the air and protected our bombers and battled Hitler’s army directly.
They helped guide to safety countless white soldiers who at first were hostile to their black faces.
Every person who has been willing to put on a uniform and pick up a gun in defense of this country deserves our gratitude.
They’ve earned our gratitude.
What the Tuskegee Airmen accomplished stands out even in that rarified air.
Before 1940, black men were not allowed to fly for the U.S. military.
The Airmen and members of the black press and civil rights organizations fought to change that – fought for the right to be put in just as much harm’s way as white soldiers.
And some of them died during their service. Their aerial exploits were noted for being among the highest quality and most important during World War II.
But their sacrifice wasn’t even being much discussed until the year I was born, 1972.
That was wrong.
I’m glad we are getting another chance to correct that record.