It was almost 70 years ago that the first aviation cadet class began training at the Tuskegee Army Air Field. The 13 black cadets, – the inaugural members of the Tuskegee Airmen – who entered flight school in 1941 challenged every racist notion held by the Army and by the segregated city of Tuskegee, Ala.
Fifty years later, Chicago resident Melvin Knazze, 65, became involved with the airmen. Knazze jumped at his chance to help carry on the airmen’s legacy and to help repay the debt he felt he owed them.
A decorated Navy pilot, Knazze said he knew nothing of the Tuskegee Airmen growing up.
“Imagine, a young person like myself, I saw no heroes that looked like me,” Knazze said at a special celebration held Sunday at Third Unitarian Church.
“I’m talking about in the 50s when I started watching television. Even though I had this enthusiasm for aviation, I saw no one that looked like me involved in aviation . . . People of color in aviation? It wasn’t in the school books.”
Even without black role models to look up to, Knazze followed his passion for aviation into the Navy. It wasn’t until much later that he realized how much the pioneering airmen had done for him.
“I hate to think what the civil rights movement would have been if those young men had not volunteered,” Knazze said of the cadets who joined the pilot training program in the face of intense intimidation and discrimination.
Today, Knazze is the appearances chairman for the Chicago “DODO” chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
In his role as chairman, Knazze shared his thoughts with members of Third Unitarian to help the church commemorate black history month.
Knazze’s presentation on the airmen was part of a weekend of events that also featured a speech by Christopher Reed, a professor of black history studies at Roosevelt University, a screening of the film Before They Die (a documentary chronicling the Tulsa race riots in 1921) and a performance by Momma Kemba.
Church trustee Barbara Minor said the church had decided to take one weekend out of the month to celebrate black history.
Knazze shared the history of the airmen with a group of about 20 in the church’s Paul Robeson room.
“No, the civil rights movement did not begin with the Montgomery bus boycott,” Knazze said. “There was a civil rights movement going on in the 30s, and the Tuskegee airmen were the fruit of that movement.”