A 'Theater on Wheels' Rolls Tuskegee Airmen Exhibit into Battle Creek

Apr 15, 2014

The "Rise Above" traveling exhibit about the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black military fighter pilots, comes to Battle Creek starting this week
Credit redtail.org

The Tuskegee Airmen have been the subject of movies on the small and big screens, but still not everyone knows their importance to America. 

This week, Southwest Michigan residents will have to go no farther than Battle Creek for a history lesson on the nation’s first black, military fighter pilots. Battle Creek hosts the unique “Rise Above” Tuskegee Airmen traveling exhibit that’ll visit schools in that city over a 10-day period.

The exhibit is unlike most others in that it is contained in an eye-catching, red 81-foot semi-tractor trailer that expands into a 35-seat movie theater. Those who enter watch an IMAX-style documentary about the Airmen, who battled discrimination and broke color lines to become in high demand during World War II.

Tuskegee Airmen are commonly known as Red Tails and also Red Tail Angels, a nod to the distinctive red marking on the aircraft they flew.

"This story was not in my history books -- now, I'm 72, and that's dating me," says Barb Shambach, a founding member of the local Bridges to Cultural Understanding, an event co-sponsor. "But it was not in the history books of a lot of people. When this exhibit goes around the country and they ask some classrooms how many know who the Tuskegee Airmen are, there's some classrooms that not one hand goes up. Not only that, but they've encountered teachers that don't know who the Tuskegee Airmen are."

On Friday, April 18th, members of the public are invited to see the 30-minute-long documentary within the exhibit. It will be stationed in the parking lot across from the entrance to Battle Creek High School; the school is located at 100 W. Van Buren St. in downtown Battle Creek. Advance registration is required to visit the exhibit, but not to attend the keynote address taking place two days earlier. At 5 p.m. Wednesday, former Tuskegee Airman and ex-POW Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson speaks at the 1,880-seat W.K. Kellogg Auditorium, which is down the street from the high school at 50 W. Van Buren in Battle Creek. Admission is free to both the exhibit and the talk.

"The truck is traveling all through the nation to get the message across to children, particularly those of difficult circumstances, to have this inspirational message that these gentlemen, against all odds and high racial prejudice at that time, proved themselves to be exemplary," explains Shambach, when asked what she hopes visitors get out of the exhibit's documentary. "(The Tuskegee Airmen) were the ones who flew above the bombers to ensure that they were able to hit their targets and, were not hit themselves. And they were so good that, after awhile, white pilots began requesting them."

The exhibit will show the Tuskegee Airmen documentary every 45 minutes on Friday, starting at 8 a.m. There will be nine showings. The last one is at 2:30 p.m. To reserve a spot at a showing, call Neighborhoods Inc. of Battle Creek at (269) 968-1113.

Neighborhoods Inc., a community housing development organization, along with Bridges to Cultural Understanding, a racial healing group, are the lead organizers. Together, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, they financed the about $22,000 cost for the exhibit and associated events, according to Bill Phillips, Neighborhoods executive director. Shambach also thanks the Urban League and NAACP in Battle Creek for their support.

The Tuskegee Airmen served with the U.S. Army Air Corps. The "Rise Above" exhibit about them is maintained by the Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron, a nonprofit organization. More information about the Tuskegee Airmen.