Sheppard commemorates Tuskegee legacy with street renaming

  • Published
  • By John Ingle
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – A bronze statue of an American military aviator stands on the Terrazzo at the United States Air Force Academy, facing the south but gazing toward the eastern sky.

It’s the quintessential pose of a man – a people – destined for greatness, eyes fixed on a greater purpose that lies beyond the horizon. This Tuskegee Airmen Memorial statue memorializes the challenges of a few to lift the hopes and dreams of many.

“They rose from adversity through competence, courage, commitment, and capacity to serve America on silver wings, and to set a standard few will transcend,” the inscription on the base of the statue reads.

The trailblazing focus of that special strain of Airmen was once again honored July 1, 2020, at Sheppard AFB when a primary thoroughfare was renamed to not only memorialize the heralded aviators who took to the skies, but also the African American aircraft mechanics trained at this North Texas base to maintain and sustain the air power of the all-black flying units. A ceremony marked the introduction of Tuskegee Airmen Avenue, formerly Fifth Avenue, here.

Brig. Gen. Kenyon K. Bell, 82nd Training Wing commander and a 1995 AFA graduate, said he is proud to stand on the heritage of the Tuskegee Airmen. Those Airmen, he said, represent a significant piece of African American, Air Force, Army Air Corps, military and American history.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said. “So this significant portion of our American history needs to continue to be told. I personally know that my service in our United States Air Force would not be possible without these pioneers leading the way.”

In attendance were members of the Tuskegee Airman Inc. Charles B. Hall Chapter in Oklahoma City.

Bell provided a history lesson on the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, which dates back to the early 1940s when the nation was fighting in World War II. A test was commissioned to determine whether African American men had, in essence, the mental, physical and emotional makeup needed to be combat fighter pilots. Did they have what it takes?

Time and again throughout the war, the Tuskegee Airmen proved their mettle in combat, racking up historic statistics not rivaled by any other unit. Their successes didn’t come without ridicule and skepticism, but there was no arguing details.

In fact, because the 332nd Fighter Group achieved incredible air victories and low loss rates of bomber aircraft during World War II, they were often requested to provide bomber escort over other units. Many of those requests came from White aviators, a sign of the skill of the Tuskegee Airmen and the respect they had earned.

Bell pointed out that the Tuskegee legacy isn’t limited to the men who took to the skies as pilots, but also the mechanics who maintained the aircraft. Maintainers for the all-black units received their training right here at Sheppard.

“We stake claim to the Tuskegee Airmen who came through our halls and earned their right to be able to go war and to prosecute our effort as the United States in the war effort in World War II,” he said. “Combat capability starts here – it has been starting here for a long and distinguished time.”

Chief Master Sgt. Wayne B. Jones, 82nd TRW command chief master sergeant, said the ceremony is a celebration of the African American pioneers who inspired the military to change and take action to break through racially segregated walls. It took a few more years after World War II for those efforts to be fully realized. With the stroke of a pen, President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981 desegregated the U.S. armed forces on July 26, 1948.

“Today, as we celebrate this noble and inspirational group of pioneers, let us not rest on our past, but continue to capitalize on the immense diversity we have and foster an environment that continues to embrace the cultural differences that we have,” he said, “(Let’s) learn from one another through dignity and respect so that we never forget the accomplishments of those who came before us, and strive to build on those amazing accomplishments to propel us to greatness in the future.”

The effort to rename the street began during the tenure of Bell’s predecessor, Brig. Gen. Ronald E. Jolly Sr. Bell said it was during the turnover period between the two leaders that Jolly informed him of the renaming project, to which he said he was proud to carry that mantle. After the regular approval process and a COVID-19 delay, people began working on a ceremony to commemorate the significance of the name change and the celebration.