Black history made up-close, personal

Col. Charles E. McGee, a Tuskegee Airman who holds a record of 409 combat missions in three wars, speaks to visitors to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
Col. Charles E. McGee, a Tuskegee Airman who holds a record of 409 combat missions in three wars, speaks to visitors to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Leon and Stacia Vaughn of Mount Washington wanted their 5-year-old grandson, Enoch Vaughn, to expand his horizons, so they brought him to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum on Saturday morning to attend the Black Memorabilia Fine Art & Craft show.

There he met Fred Valentine, Luther Atkinson and Pedro Sierra, all veterans of the Negro Leagues, when baseball was segregated.


The young boy, a Baltimore County elementary school student, then shook the hand of Col. Charles E. McGee, 97, a Tuskegee Airman. The African-American airmen flew B-17 and B-24 bombers in Italy during World War II. They were also known as Red Tails, for the distinctive paint on their aircraft.

"We once had 992 Tuskegee pilots, and now we're below 20 that are still living," McGee said. The Bethesda man was signing copies of his book, "Tuskegee Airman."


McGee, who also flew in the Korean and Vietnam wars, flew an Air Force record 409 combat missions during his career. He earned a Bronze Star, a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Legion of Merit and, with the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen still alive in 2007, the Congressional Gold Medal.

And he couldn't get a job as a commercial airline pilot.

"It was because I was black," he said. "And women who were black couldn't get jobs as stewardesses for the same reason."

Stacia Vaughn is an administrator with the Maryland attorney general's office and a member of its diversity committee.

"We wanted Enoch to learn more about his African-American heritage, things that may not be taught in school," she said.

Dealers selling vintage African-American memorabilia — magazines, dolls, figurines, movie posters, pottery, advertising, records, sheet music, jewelry and craft items — were doing a brisk business.

Jeremiah Stewart owns a clothing, jewelry and memorabilia business with his wife in Reading, Pa.

"Black memorabilia is getting harder to find because people are holding onto it," he said. "A lot of Europeans are buying it."

Bayo Ogunsanya owns a business in Brooklyn, N.Y., that specializes in rare African-American antiquarian books, historical documents and autographs.

"I keep my prices deliberately low because I want people to get joy from these items," he said.

A highlight of the event Saturday was a panel discussion featuring scholars and officials from the National Park Service, the Maryland Park Service and the Maryland Office of Tourism on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. The park is scheduled to open next month in Cambridge.

The park will celebrate the life of the former slave who became known as the Moses of her people.


Tubman was born into slavery in the 1820s in Dorchester County. She fled to Philadelphia in 1849.

"We know that she returned 13 times to rescue her family, putting her life at risk each time," said Robert T. Parker, superintendent of the new park. "Because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a slaver could have tracked her down and returned her to her owner.

"Evidence suggests that as far south as she went on the Underground Railroad was Cambridge, and that she rescued 70 people," he said. "It was courageous."

Tubman served as a spy in the Civil War and argued for women's suffrage. She eventually settled in Auburn, N.Y.

"I was a conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger," she said in 1896.

Iyelli Ichile is a fellow at the Lewis Museum.

"Love is a more powerful motivator than fear, and Harriet left an abundant legacy of love," she said.

There will be no monuments or statues on the grounds of the 17-acre park. There will be a visitors center that interprets Tubman's life and journeys.

"What we have is the landscape and the rivers, bay forests, and the trails she knew so well," said Dana Paterra of the Maryland Park Service. "And the center is on a south-to-north axis, which replicates the journey of an enslaved person."

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