A Quarter Century of “Black Wings”

A talk with the curator of the National Air and Space Museum’s soon-to-be-updated exhibit on African-Americans in aviation.

In March 1945, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis was commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces 332nd Fighter Group (better known as the Tuskegee airmen) in Italy. Pilots of the 332nd flew North American P-51 Mustangs as fighter escorts for Allied bombers. After the war, Davis would become the first black general in the U.S. Air Force. (Toni Frissell Collection/Library of Congress)
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Curator Von Hardesty, who is currently researching the book, says it will feature a 20,000-word narrative on African-American aerospace history as well as photos of prominent figures.

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Hardesty spoke with Air & Space Associate Editor Diane Tedeschi in February.

A&S: How did you go about preparing an exhibit on black aviation history?

Hardesty: We interviewed a lot of early African-American aviation pioneers, and what’s so wonderful is that several of the people featured in the exhibit were still living. Many of these people have passed from the scene now, but they were still around in the early ’80s, so they were able to provide photographs, information, and commentary on what we were doing. It couldn’t have been a better time to do the exhibit.

Any memories of the opening in 1983?

In those days, we had a little bit more money to throw on a party, and the one for “Black Wings” turned out to be one of the most extraordinary ones because of the people who showed up. We had a host of Tuskegee airmen. And we had some people who were very much involved in the early years of black aviation. We had black astronauts here. It was an enormous get-together. It was a real celebration.

What are some of the challenges in researching black aviation history?

Take for example, the Tuskegee airmen: We have gone from a time when they were ignored and neglected as a part of the Army Air Corps to a point now where they’ve kind of become—the phrase I use sometimes—postage-stamp characters. They’re very two-dimensional. So you go from this era of neglect and dismissal to an era of glorification. Neither one is desirable; you want something more historical and nuanced than that.

If you were researching Amelia Earhart, I imagine it would be easy to find newspaper and magazine coverage of her exploits, but there probably wasn’t much press coverage of black record-setting pilots.

That’s true. And the further you go back, you realize how segregated the press was in those days. For example, if you wanted to study newspaper accounts of early black aviators, you don’t go to the Chicago Tribune, you go to the Chicago Defender—the all-black newspaper—and the Pittsburgh Courier. These newspapers often showcased what blacks were doing; the so-called white press, mainstream newspapers, were just politely disinterested. So that’s one of the problems.

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