Celebrating the Tuskegee Airmen

This post was written by Amara L. Alexander, the 2019-20 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Growing up in Alabama, I heard stories of influential leaders advocating change for African Americans. Many tales were told; however, the heroic actions of the Tuskegee Airmen left a legacy for all to remember. The airmen broke barriers by becoming the first African American military fighter and bomber pilots in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. The men trained as pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, parachute riggers, navigators, and electrical system specialists at Moton Field located in Tuskegee, Alabama. During a government-sponsored trip, American photographer Toni Frissell captured images of the men highlighting wartime conditions. Using her photographs, introduce students to the Tuskegee Airmen.

Tuskegee airmen Marcellus G. Smith and Roscoe C. Brown, Ramitelli, Italy. Toni Frissell, 1945.

Members of the 332nd Fighter Group in Ramitelli, Italy. Toni Frissell, 1945

Members of the Army Air Force 332nd Fighter Group in a briefing room, Ramitelli, Italy. Toni Frissell, 1945

Group students into pairs, give each pair one photograph to focus on, and direct them to discuss how this image reflects a step in the engineering design process (EDP): Ask-Imagine-Plan-Create-Improve. Allow time for students to share their responses with their partner, record ideas on a post-it and attach to their image. Using the jigsaw method, group students together based on the step they selected that best represents the photograph. Prompt students to explain their reasoning for choosing that step of the EDP to fellow group mates. Prompt students to share their ideas with the whole class, using these questions as needed:

  • Knowing the steps of the EDP, why did you select that step for this picture?
  • Describe the details in the photograph that indicate this step in the process.
  • What can you learn from examining this image?
  • What do you want to know more about concerning this image?
  • Could the picture represent another step in the EDP?

Analyzing the photos may pique student interest in learning more about the Tuskegee Airmen. Ask them what questions they have from studying the photographs. Share that the Airmen were deployed to North Africa and Sicily with the mission to escort bomber planes to their targets in Germany and ensure the safety of the bomber pilots return to base. General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., led the men of Tuskegee in combat. Under Davis’ leadership, the Tuskegee Airmen received high regards for their achievements. Other bomber crews called them “Red Tail Angels” because of the red color on their tail wings. The Airmen were active from 1940-1948.  Their legacy continues through the Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated organization. Allow time for students to study the images again. How does the new information change or shape what they see?

Extend this technique for introducing or assessing understanding of the engineering design process. As a challenge, present students with additional photographs of the Tuskegee Airmen so that each image will reflect a step in the engineering design process and direct them to repeat the process of identifying these steps.

 

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