MARYVILLE, Mo. — A large crowd of Northwest Missouri State University students and staff gathered in the J.W. Jones Student Union Ballroom on Saturday for the annual Soul Food Dinner hosted by the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
This year’s banquet, which featured a menu of fried catfish, fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and corn flour muffins, was themed “African Americans in Time of War” and featured keynote speaker Capt. George J. Dunmore, who retired from the Ohio Army National Guard in 1971 after 21 years in uniform.
Dunmore currently serves as public relations officer for the Heart of America Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen of America Inc., a national non-profit organization dedicated to honoring the accomplishments of African Americans who served as U.S. Army Air Corps air and ground crewmen and operations support training personnel during World War II.
The phrase “Tuskegee Airmen” serves as a general reference to a group of African-American military pilots and other personnel who served during the massive global conflict that lasted from 1939 until 1945.
Tuskegee Airmen flew as members of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army air forces. The name also applies to navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other personnel.
Elements of the Tuskegee Airmen’s fighter group earned multiple Distinguished Unit Citations and initially saw action in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. Later in the war, Tuskegee flyers fought over Romania, France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and Greece.
African American pilots trained at Moton Field, now home to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, and educated at Tuskegee University near Tuskegee, Alabama.
During his remarks, Dunmore pointed out that in the face of a long history of discrimination and segregation within the U.S. military, African Americans have “served with distinction in all of America’s fights for freedom and liberty” since the American Revolution.
Despite this long record of patriotism, service and sacrifice, Dunmore said — a record that includes significant contributions to the Union victory in the Civil War and the storied exploits of frontier-era “Buffalo Soldiers” — African Americans for decades remained second-class members of America’s military, just as blacks were considered second-class citizens in civilian life throughout 90 years of “Jim Crow” segregation.
Dunmore continued that even after battlefield heroics by the largely African American 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I, an outfit nicknamed the “Hellfighters” by their German enemies, the Army, in 1925, saw fit to issue a study claiming that African American troops “lacked intelligence, courage and initiative” and were “otherwise inferior to white troops.”
The effect of such institutional bigotry, Dunmore said, has contributed to a skewed version of popular history in which the contribution of African Americans in uniform have been essentially written out of novels, television shows and such Hollywood movies as “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Longest Day.”
African American soldiers, airmen and sailors nevertheless persevered, Dunmore said, with many building stellar military careers or going on to make noteworthy contributions as civilians.
Dunmore gave special mention to Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr., the first African-American to rise to the rank of general in the U.S. military, and Davis’ son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who commanded the Tuskegee Airmen’s 99th Pursuit Squadron during World War II and went on to become the first African-American Air Force general.
This year’s Soul Food Dinner ended with a standing ovation following a stirring up-tempo version of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” performed by Northwest’s student-led Spirit and Truth Gospel Choir.