Tuskegee Airmen bring message of courage, honor to juvenile hall

02/21/2012 12:00 AM

08/30/2013 11:24 AM

The 70 young people in the audience at Sacramento County's juvenile hall listened carefully as two speakers, both white-haired and wearing the signature red jackets of Sacramento's Tuskegee Airmen chapter, spoke to them about the power of overcoming challenges.

As a young man, George Porter, now 90, helped open a new chapter in America's history when he joined the Tuskegee Airmen, the squadron that broke racial barriers in World War II by proving that, contrary to critics' suggestions, African Americans could serve as courageous combat pilots and skilled ground crewmen.

"They forgot to tell us we were supposed to fail," said Porter, who served as an aircraft mechanic.

And Edith Roberts – the 92-year-old widow of Col. George "Spanky" Roberts, the first person to sign up as a Tuskegee aviation cadet – said the legacy of the airmen includes rising above the limitations imposed on them.

"You haven't experienced this," she told the audience. "This was in the days of segregation, when black people were thought of as second-class citizens."

Their appearance at last weekend's interdenominational worship service at juvenile hall coincided not only with Black History Month but also with the recent opening of George Lucas' film about the Tuskegee Airmen, "Red Tails."

The California Museum also has an exhibit devoted to the airmen, "Tuskegee Airmen: Journey to Flight," which opened earlier this month and continues into August.

The squadron, formed in 1942 at the all-black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, flew 700 escort missions and 15,000 combat sorties in Europe, shooting down 150 enemy aircraft.

Of the 992 pilots, only 150 are alive today, said Porter – and of 24,000 support crewmen, about half survive.

"America has come a long way," said Dan Thompson, juvenile hall chaplain. "The overall message to you is, no matter what you face, if you work hard and face your problems, you can overcome some very difficult obstacles."

As part of the local chapter's "living history team," Porter and Roberts consider it their mission to keep their part of history alive by conveying that message to classes and church and civics groups.

"If you've made mistakes, don't make another," Porter told the audience. "Stay in school. Get your education. Respect yourself and your family, and respect other people."

The current juvenile hall population is 181, said the county's chief probation officer, Don Meyer. Residents can choose whether to attend worship services at the hall.

Listening in the audience, a 15-year-old ward said: "These speakers mean a lot to me. Back then, they had to go through so many negative things, but they kept their heads up and did what they were born to do.

"You could utilize that here. We can keep our heads up and stay out of here."

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