Tuskegee legacy honored by serving community

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Eric Summers Jr.
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
A group of people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is dedicated to sharing a legacy of Airmen who played a significant role in history while also giving back to the community.

Keesler's Lawrence E. Roberts Gulf Coast Chapter, part of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. shares the stories of some of America's greatest heroes and provides high school students an opportunity to receive a college education.

"We create scholarships for young adults coming out of high school," said Chief Master Sgt. Curtis Jennings, 81st Mission Support Group superintendent and member of the local Tuskegee Airmen chapter. "We target Junior ROTC groups and travel in two-person teams visiting schools to make personal contact with students to make sure they know about our scholarship program."

The chapter members travel to Gautier, Moss Point, Pascagoula, Pearl River, Picayune, Gulfport, D'Iberville, George County, Hancock, Harrison Central, Ocean Springs, West Harrison, Bay High, Biloxi and St. Martin High Schools in Mississippi to educate them on scholarships available through the chapter.

"Our main focus is to provide scholarships to those who would otherwise not have the opportunity to go to college while heightening awareness of the contributions of the Tuskegee Airman," Jennings said. "Our chapter is named after Col. Lawrence E. Roberts, an original Tuskegee Airman stationed here at Keesler."

Roberts began his career at Keesler Field in 1943 as a preaviation cadet private and was assigned to the Tuskegee Airmen training program the following year. He retired in 1975, ending his 32 years of service back at Keesler, where he was serving as commander of the maintenance and supply group. He adopted the Mississippi Gulf Coast as his home and continued his involvement with Keesler and the surrounding community until his death in 2004. The Roberts Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Facility was dedicated in his memory in 2009.

To raise awareness of their local chapter, members usually talk to students during high school visits, host fundraising events and pass out brochures. But with the opening of the movie "Red Tails," which depicts a group of African-American pilots from the 332nd Fighter Group in 1944 that were sent into combat in Italy, the chapter has found a new way to enlighten others of their cause.

As portrayed in the movie, the Tuskegee Airmen were fighter pilots who provided safe passage for bombers.

It was something to catch the attention of the community, Jennings said. People didn't know that a Tuskegee Airmen chapter exists right here at Keesler and that they could join, the chief said.

That unawareness nearly brought the chapter to an end two years ago.

"We had some of our more senior people who were trying to hold this chapter together and keep the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen going," Jennings said.

The chief said that it would have been a travesty to let the chapter, named after a Tuskegee Airman who served on Keesler, fade away after the years of service that many members have put in to it.

"I believe that there was a time in history where these Americans were not recognized and we are now helping to preserve the memories, and not because of the African-American piece -- this is about American history."

In today's Air Force, resiliency, the power or will to bounce back from difficult situations, is needed because Airmen are sometimes put in situations where the outcome is not to their satisfaction. This same principle was instilled in the Tuskegee Airmen back many years ago.

"I think it is phenomenal what they achieved," Jennings said. "I can't sit here and honestly say that I would have the same attitude to put my life on the line, as they did, for a country that did not welcome me.

During the era of the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American pilots not only had to battle in the skies but they also dealt with racism, prejudice and scrutiny by the public, the media and their superiors.

"If it weren't for people during World War II who looked like me, I don't know if I would have gotten this opportunity to become an Air Force chief as an African-American," Jennings said.

According to Jennings, the only requirement to become a member of Keesler's chapter is to be a concerned citizen who wants to continue the legacy and help children get a higher education.

For more information, call 601-213-4780.