By Tim Jimenez
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – It was a live Black History Month lesson for a group of Philadelphia high school students. The instructors on this night were two men who broke barriers in the 1940s.
Students from Philadelphia Freedom Schools had been spending the past two weeks learning about the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the elite group of African-American pilots, navigators, maintenance and other personnel, who broke down color barriers around the time of World War II.
The culmination for this lesson was held Wednesday night at the Communities In Schools of Philadelphia building in the city’s Fairmount section. There was a screening of the 1995 HBO movie ‘The Tuskegee Airmen,’ followed by a Q&A session with two living members.
“It’s hard for them (the students) to even fathom someone who was born in the early 1900s,” said Bumni Samuel, Director of Philadelphia Freedom Schools. “They’re 90s babies. This is connecting the history and having people telling their real stories.”
Henry Moore and Dr. Eugene Richardson, members of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, entered the room when the film was finished. Their message, as it is anytime they speak to students, was overcoming obstacles and the importance of education.
“(The students) must learn something about the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, ” said Moore, who turns 91 in April. He was an airplane mechanic and eventually a math teacher.
“Achievement, upward mobility, taking advantage of every opportunity, going forward and of course, patriotism,” he said of the lessons he wanted the students to remember.
Dr. Richardson, also a former teacher and principal, was a pilot who learned to fly P-40’s and P-47 aircraft.
“I just like to let young people know they have a heck of a lot to be proud of and there’s a lot that they have to aspire to,” he said.
Richardson said the recent release of ‘Red Tails’ was positive but, much like the respect for the Airmen, it took too long to develop.
“There’s a big reluctance to screen black people in highly positive roles. They had no problems with making black pimps and black drug runners,” he said. “But, black heroes, highly intelligent black people; they have a problem with movies of that sort. We need our young people to understand what we’re capable of doing and what they’re capable of doing.”
Freshman Chloe Gore said being in the same room as the two men made the history they had been studying for two weeks come alive.
“It’s an amazing opportunity because all the information that we have learned, we actually get to know it from them and know the truth and not just the things that people put in (books),” she said.
Senior Anthony Cunningham asked the Airmen whether, if given the chance, they would change anything.
“What they went through actually made them stronger and better men. It actually allowed them to set a pathway for others. It’s really respectable,” Cunningham said.
The airmen capped off the Q&A saying they wished students would unplug their computers, watch less TV, and read more books.
The students began their evening watching fictional Tuskegee Airmen on a TV screen. They ended the night posing for pictures with Moore and Richardson, two men who lived to talk about the history that was all too real.