Carrollwood Cultural Center exhibit chronicles Tuskegee Airmen experience

Published February 5 2014
Updated February 5 2014

CARROLLWOOD — The gallery at the Carrollwood Cultural Center is currently hosting its first traveling exhibit. "The Test," which is on display through March 1, chronicles the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American aviators to serve in the U.S. military.

"This is a new direction for us," said Gainor Roberts, art curator for the center. In its five years of operation, the center's gallery has been home to an ever-changing display of works by emerging artists and seasoned professionals that have been well received by the local community.

Richard Haerther, the center's art director, decided it was time to expand the gallery's reach. He and Roberts set out to acquire a traveling exhibit that would appeal to a broader base. They found what they were looking for in the compelling story told by "The Test."

"We hope this exhibit will not only draw in more of the Tampa Bay community, but also attract sponsors to support future exhibits," Haerther said.

"The Test" is the brainchild of photographer Jerry Taliaferro. As a former soldier, Taliaferro was compelled to use his art to convey the story of men who fought for their right to serve their country as combat aviators at a time when "separate but equal" was the law of the land.

Their story began in 1941, just months before the United States entered World War II. Facing increased pressure from civil liberties groups, the War Department initiated the Tuskegee Experiment, to see if black men could be trained to serve as effective combat pilots. The critical phase of this experiment came in 1943, when the first squadron deployed to North Africa to enter combat.

Amid much skepticism, they were put to the test, which they passed not only by earning an impressive combat record, but also by helping pave the way for the desegregation of the Armed Forces in 1948.

Taliaferro relied on personal interviews with surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, detailed Air Force records and input from noted military historians to bring the story of these men and their combat missions to life. To fully appreciate the significance of their accomplishments, Taliaferro sets the stage with a depiction of what life was like for African-Americans during the first half of the 20th century. From there, meticulously re-created images offer visitors a bird's-eye view of the major campaigns fought by the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group. Carefully crafted aircraft models, maps and graphics are also used to depict significant events and provide a profile of the aircraft used by the Tuskegee Airmen and their adversaries.

Taliaferro created a special piece for the center's exhibit that honors Al Downing, former St. Petersburg Junior College music teacher and namesake of the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association. Downing served with the Tuskegee Airmen and later led the 613th Army Air Force Band in Tuskegee.

"Visitors should come to this exhibit to educate themselves about a very special group of men who not only contributed to America's victory in World War II, but also contributed to the fight against prejudice in America and in the Armed Forces," Roberts said.