Grant funds Tuskegee, civil rights program

The struggle for equal treatment of black cadets revolving around the segregated officers clubs at Freeman Army Airfield during World War II provided the impetus for a new fund created at the Community Foundation of Jackson County.

The Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Endowment was created with an $8,000 grant, one of 19 approved during the foundation’s annual competitive grant program, according to a news release from the foundation.

The fund will help provide grants for an educational program centered on the Tuskegee Airmen and the civil rights movement and provide grants for maintenance of the Tuskegee Airmen memorial now being planned at Freeman Municipal Airport in Seymour.

“We are excited about the educational work that the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Endowment will help fund,” Trish Butt of Brownstown said. She is chairwoman of the foundation’s grant committee.

“It will not only focus on what happened with the Tuskegee Airmen at the time they were stationed for training at Freeman Field but can also follow the civil rights movement afterward,” she said. “This educational piece along with the expanded airmen memorial should have a strong, positive impact for our community.”

The Freeman Field Mutiny is the term used to describe the events surrounding a group of black officers, part of the 477th Bombardment Group, who protested against the segregated officers clubs at Freeman Field when they arrived for training in 1945.

According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, on April 5, 1945, the African American officers began a display of resistance.

“In small groups of just a few officers at a time, they began entering the white ‘instructor’ club, 36 of them getting arrested in the process. The next night the same tactic played out again with another 25 arrested,” according to the Smithsonian.

The club was then closed with more than 100 officers writing to the Army inspector general seeking an investigation into their arrests.

“The complaint specifically noted the inherent hypocrisy of U.S. racial policies in the context of the struggles of World War II, stating: ‘The continuance of this policy can hardly be reconciled with the worldwide struggle for freedom for which we are asked and are willing to lay down our lives,’” according to the Smithsonian.

Eventually, 101 officers who were arrested in the aftermath were ordered released by President Harry Truman. Three faced a courts martial.

The Freeman Field Mutiny led to drastic change for the time, including the eventual integration of airbase facilities and the integration of the entire U.S. military. In 1995, the U.S. Air Force exonerated those who had been arrested, finally removing reprimand letters from the records of those charged and expunging the one conviction that resulted from the incident.

Community partners in the educational programming revolving around the Tuskegee Airmen memorial include the Freeman Army Airfield Museum and Jackson County Public Library.

“This seed money and other donations it might help attract can create opportunities for better understanding of the Freeman Field Mutiny as well as interesting related topics,” Tim Molinari of Seymour said. Molinari is spearheading the campaign to erect two statues representing the Tuskegee Airmen who trained at Freeman Army Airfield during World War II.

One statue will be of a Tuskegee Airman dressed in flight gear to represent their contribution to the national defense during World War II at a time when the U.S. military, like much of the nation, was segregated. The other statue will be of a Tuskegee Airman in an officer’s uniform representing the discrimination they faced here. The memorial also will include an Indiana State Historical Marker describing the Freeman Field Mutiny.

The project doesn’t end there, however.

“Periodically, notable speakers, movies and authors can be brought to our community to present compelling topics and presentations for not only our young people but for the older population, too,” Molinari said of the educational program. “We believe that these talks and presentations would be well received. This would become a natural progression from awareness — the memorial — to greater enlightenment.”

The Freeman Field Mutiny is considered by some historians of the civil rights movement as a model for later efforts to integrate public facilities through civil disobedience, Molinari said.

Organizers expect to unveil the statues and expanded memorial in October 2022. As part of that dedication, Molinari is working to bring the Rise Above traveling program to the airport, as well.

The Rise Above exhibit is a mobile theater that focuses on the short film “Rise Above,” which tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and obstacles they overcame as black pilots to train, fly and fight for their country. Organizers hope to see 1,000 area children and thousands of others flow through the exhibit when it spends a week at Freeman Field this fall.

Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Dan Davis said the promise of the educational project appealed to the organization’s grant committee and board of directors.

“We support the goal of informing and reminding people that progress in overcoming racism — here and elsewhere — doesn’t just happen,” he said. “Overcoming those circumstances is made by people with strong convictions, an abundance of courage and the willingness to stand up to wrong, just as the Tuskegee Airmen who stood up to the segregation they encountered did while fighting for our country’s freedom. Their voices — their actions — still need to be heard and celebrated.”

This grant is not the first grant provided by the foundation toward the current Tuskegee Airmen memorial project. The foundation approved a $5,000 grant in the 2019 fall grant cycle toward the memorial’s cost. It also provided a grant of $1,000 in 2014 to help fund creation of the initial Tuskegee Airmen memorial, which now sits next to the main terminal building at Freeman Municipal Airport.

Grants from the Jackson County Unrestricted Endowment and the John and Kay Beatty Community Endowment funded creation of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Endowment.

Donations to the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Endowment can be made by sending a check to the foundation or by donating online at the foundation’s website, Donations can be tax-deductible.