George Lucas. Now, what does this legendary producer, screenwriter and director (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.) have to do with Sumter, South Carolina? Seriously, has he ever even heard of the place?
Does it matter? Lucas is the Executive Producer of Red Tails, a major 20th Century Fox film that has grossed more than $40 million dollars since its release a few weeks ago. Starring Terrance Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Bryan Cranston, the film is based on the original Tuskegee Airmen, the black flying aces of World War II. One of the Airmen went on to become the first African-American four-star general in the U.S. Air Force—General Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. With a 40-year career that spanned three wars, he was a recognized civil rights leader. Several others became men of noted accomplishment.
Still haven’t twigged on to the Sumter connection? Here it is: three of those famed pilots whose exploits are dramatized in this film called Sumter, South Carolina “home.” Philip Rembert, Willie Ashley and Leroy Bowman were among the daredevil pioneers who served as the first black fighter pilots in American history. According to the official website of the United States Army, “the Airmen, quite literally, smashed through an aerial glass-ceiling and in heroic fashion, displayed the skills and courage of African-Americans.”
Lt. Willie Ashley, Jr. was a member of the 99th Fighter Squadron, America’s first black fighter unit, and flew the unit’s first mission of the war. He died in 1984 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. J. Philip Rembert was Sumter County’s first black Councilman, elected at-large in 1974 before the introduction of the single-member district voting system, and held the seat until his death in 1987. Dr. Leroy Bowman, Sumter’s only surviving Tuskegee Airman, received the Congressional Gold Medal from then-President George W. Bush in 2007. He was also honored at a Veteran’s Day ceremony held at the Sumter County Courthouse in November 2011.
Of course, the Veteran’s Day ceremony was moving and meaningful for all the surviving veterans and the friends and family members present. But don’t feel badly if you missed it. Commemorating the accomplishments of not only the Tuskegee Airmen, but all of the Sumter area’s men and women in uniform, local historian Sammy Way curates the Sumter County Military Display at the James E. Clyburn Intermodal Transportation Center, 129 South Harvin Street. This display, comprising more than 3,000 items of memorabilia, covers the era from World War I to the present Afghanistan conflict. It is open on Sundays, from 2 to 4:30 p.m., and Coach Way is often on hand to answer questions or discuss historical matters. It’s quite an experience to see the faces on the walls, the actual uniforms of those who served, and to remember.
And the movie? It’s still playing at the Beacon 12 on Broad Street (Wesmark Plaza). Check it out soon—I know I intend to!