Tuskegee Airmen to attend inauguration

Indiana man made history in WWII
January 13, 2009 3:22:47 PM PST
Quentin Smith of Gary, Indiana, will be on hand to see the nation's first African-American president take office. Smith was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first corps of African-American combat pilots.The Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated young men who enlisted to become America's first black military airmen at a time when many people thought that black men lacked the intelligence, skill, courage and patriotism. They were college graduates and came from every section of the country.

President-elect Barack Obama has personally extended an inaugural invitation to the close to 300 surviving members of the famous, all-black World War II squadron.

Ninety-year-old Quentin Smith of Gary, Indiana, will join his fellow Tuskegee Airmen in the front row for Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony.

"I feel that this is something I would like to be a part of," said Smith. "I think it is one of the greatest things that has happened in my lifetime."

Smith says Tuskegee Airmen faced incredible discrimination and at first were not allowed to do their job.

"Nobody wanted us...the Army had put out, Blacks cannot lead, cannot fight and blacks most assuredly cannot fly combat planes."

Smith says he is glad the Airmen are finally receiving the recognition that they truly deserve. He still flies out of the Gary Airport. He mentors young people and tries to instill in them the passion for aviation that he has.

Initially, Smith balked, with the logistical headache of getting to the inauguration. The staunch Republican says his party is paying for his airfare and a donor is paying for him to stay in a capital hotel.

He says he is confident Obama is ready to lead the country.

"I feel that he is going to be able to do most of the things that he's cement his mind to do, because he's going to be transparent, honest, and if he continues to do the kind of things he has, I think we will come out of it pretty good," Smith said.

Smith says he was one of the airmen who did not go overseas. As highly trained military officers, he says, they were treated as trainees and denied access to the base officers' club. Now, decades later, that has all changed.