RICHMOND, Va. — Growing up in Petersburg, Howard Baugh was always told he could not fly because of the color of his skin.
But the first time he ever got in a plane in 1942, he was in the cockpit, preparing for World War II with a segregated fleet that would later be known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Baugh’s sons, Howard and Richard, recounted their father’s story to a small group of Richmond Public Schools students and teachers on Feb. 25 at the Virginia War Memorial before a panel discussion on the legacy of their father and the other black airmen.
The elder Howard Baugh died in 2008.
His son Howard Baugh said it was important to perpetuate his father’s legacy because many aspects of his and others’ stories were untold for a long time.
“Black history is an American history and we have Black History Month because black history was not recorded,” he said. “We have learned a lot in our research about what happened and it was never written down.”
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Baugh said he talks at schools, prisons and churches and is amazed at how many people have not heard of the black squadron. Its 355 pilots flew more than 1,000 successful missions during the war.
Richard Baugh said his father flew 136 missions in 14 months during World War II, 86 more than white pilots were required to fly before being discharged and sent home. He also was one of the 95 Tuskegee Airmen who received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Sha’mya Green, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School, said she knew about the Tuskegee Airmen but talking to someone with such a close connection was still exciting.
“It’s like, oh, I read about you in a textbook and now I’m looking at you,” Green said.
Classmate Debra Hampton also said hearing about the airmen was powerful because it served as an example of what is possible for her and others.
Thomas Jefferson senior Jalen Spencer agreed and said he enjoyed hearing directly about the kind of person the World War II pilot was.
Jim Triesler, the memorial’s director of education, said his 25 years as a history teacher informs the job he has now and adding time for a small group to speak with the Baughs before the public panel was a huge benefit for students.
“We educate people of all ages, but what I really want to see is students have an opportunity to learn and feel good about working hard. For me, being able to provide a meaningful one-on-one time with our guest speakers is a win-win for everybody,” Triesler said.
Col. Charles McGee — an original Tuskegee Airman, veteran of three wars, and aviation legend — still clearly remembers the day he shot down a German Luftwaffe fighter.
Capt. Robin Williams, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade social science at Franklin Military Academy, said the experience exposed students to “something that’s more tangible.”
“It gives that true access that you’re not going to get from a Google search or a textbook,” she said.
She added that having one-on-one time can also spark interest in students who may not be passionate about the subject matter but can relate to an aspect of what a person says and carry that with them.
Howard Baugh said he wants the young people he speaks with to be inspired by his father’s story and his own story of fighting for equality.
“I flew airplanes for 42 years both in the military and as one of the first black airline pilots. I stand on the wings of Tuskegee Airmen. They proved that we were equal.”