Black aviators are featured in expanded exhibit at BWI

February 01, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

Out of closets, attics and storerooms came dozens of photos, a few old uniforms and a treasure chest of memories of how black Americans contributed to flight.

The photos and memorabilia, gathered by the Maryland Aviation Administration, became part of an exhibit last year that for the first time brought some of the aviation achievements of black Americans together in one place.

Today, an expanded version of the exhibit returns. "African Americans in Aviation: Transcending Time and Space" will be on display for a month at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"People know African-Americans were fighter pilots in World War II, but they made contributions before the war," said Adrienne Walker-Pittman, manager of community relations at BWI, who proposed the idea and did much of the research for what has become a mini-museum. "The exhibit introduces people to a subject matter they know little about."

In 1940, for instance, when segregation kept the Cloud Club -- a group of black pilots -- from flying out of white-owned airports, the club started its own airport.

The Columbia Air Center, five miles south of Upper Marlboro, became a mecca for black aviators during the years after World War II.

But now, nothing but a couple of gas pumps, overgrown with grass, remains to show the airfield existed.

The exhibit also displays photos of Marylanders who graduated from the Tuskegee Experiment, a training program to determine whether blacks were capable of learning the intricacies of flying. The Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber to enemy fighters during escort missions in World War II, the exhibit shows.

Before setting up the exhibit for the first time last February, Ms. Walker-Pittman spent months doing research and interviews and gathering photos.

She wanted to include all phases of aviation -- commercial, passenger and cargo airlines, the military and general aviation.

Ms. Walker-Pittman turned for help to the Negro Airmen International, the Tuskegee Airmen and a Baltimore chapter of the Triple Nickles, the nation's first black paratroopers.

She also found bits and pieces of black aviation history at the Glenn L. Martin Aviation Museum and the Black Military History Institute of America Inc.

"A lot of information was locked in people's minds," she said. "It's not until it's pulled together that people realized its importance and value."

The display -- sponsored by WMAR-TV and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. -- will be open in the south terminal passenger lounge through the end of the month.

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