Chauncey Spencer II fires words out of his mouth like a volley of fighter-plane bullets. There’s unrelenting urgency in his speech that could be mistaken for being in a rush — either to move onto the next subject or to end the conversation altogether.
“It’s just that I’ve never had a platform,” he said.
Spencer, 64, of Palm Desert, Calif., made a stop in Sewickley on Wednesday to display a part of history he says has been left out of classrooms across America: how his father, Chauncey Spencer Sr., and Dale White — both Black men — played a role in the country’s integration of African Americans’ in the military and aviation.
His tour, which began Aug. 17 from the Palm Springs Air Museum, will take him to cities across the nation through Sept. 10. The main attraction is a so-called traveling museum, outfitted with air conditioning, a cushioned bench, portraits of prominent figures who eventually influenced the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen and a television playing a 15-minute documentary that chronicles that effort.
He parked it Wednesday and again from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday outside the Tull Theater on Walnut Street.
Spencer’s trip comes at a time where thousands have taken to the streets, including in Pittsburgh, to protest against police brutality and systemic racism spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in May.
His stops in Sewickley come just days before he is scheduled to arrive in Washington, D.C., to participate in the March on Washington. The march is scheduled to take place Friday when tens of thousands are expected to gather at the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Organizers for the 57th annual March on Washington have said it will “call for police accountability and reform, and to mobilize voters ahead of the November elections.”
And so it does not escape Spencer that his newfound platform is due, in part, to the times. But espousing politics is not his mission, he said.
“It’s about education,” Spencer said. “This is to educate people on the history of aviation. It has no color — it includes all Americans. I want to make complete the story about how the Tuskegee Airmen got started.”
His mission is nothing new. When his father died in 2002, he began to realize there was a hole in the history books regarding how the Tuskegee Airmen, the country’s first all-Black military outfit trained for aerial combat, got started.
In 2004, Spencer, who lived in Detroit at the time, founded an afterschool program in Lansing to teach students about the Tuskegee Airmen and its origins. Since then, he has worked to create a curriculum for middle-school students that could be adopted nationwide.
After years of traveling to different schools across the nation to get the curriculum off the ground, finally he struck a chord. Earlier this year, he attracted the attention of a man who donated $200,000 to his cause.
The money was used to finance the African Americans in Aviation Traveling Museum, the 15-minute documentary and its cross-country tour. He has partnered with the National College Resources Foundation of Diamond Bar, Calif. Spencer declined to identify the donor.
“I wish I could. He deserves the credit,” he said, standing underneath a tent situated just outside the parked museum in Sewickley. Under the tent was a table filled with educational items and T-shirts for sale.
The proceeds, he said, will ensure he can continue on with the mission.
Cece Poister of Sewickley serves as a trustee for the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of Western Pennsylvania Region Inc. She said she was glad to have Spencer visit. The Sewickley Cemetery hosts the largest memorial for the Tuskegee Airmen in the U.S., she said.
“So it makes sense to have him here,” she said. “Western Pennsylvania had the largest number of Tuskegee airmen than anywhere in the U.S. — Sewickley alone had seven.”
John Dunn, who heads Sewickley’s effort to hang banners of veterans throughout the borough, hoped to host a fundraiser to run concurrently with Spencer’s stop in Sewickley. The money raised would have contributed to his ongoing effort to hang banners of Tuskegee Airmen from the region.
He said there are 84 men and one woman from the region who served as Red Tails, the nickname given Tuskegee Airmen. Although the fundraiser fell through, he said he hopes to host one in Wolcott Park in late September.
“We’re so glad to have him,” Dunn said. “He’s worked so hard, and I wish him all the best in what he’s doing.”
Residents were glad, too.
Don Williams, 67, of Coraopolis said he has been interested in the Tuskegee Airmen’s history since Sewickley built the memorial in the cemetery in 2013.
“I’m glad their story is finally being told,” Williams said of Chauncey Spencer Sr. and Dale White — the men who in 1939 flew a plane from Chicago to Washington, D.C., in an effort to convince Congress that African Americans had a place in aviation. The flight was dubbed the “Goodwill Flight.”
Terry Hailstock, 59, of Moon visited the traveling museum Wednesday. He called their story “amazing.”
“I didn’t know about their flight until now,” he said, adding he was surprised because his father, Frank Hailstock, served as a Tuskegee airman.
“He never really wanted to talk about the war,” Hailstock said. “That’s why I came over to see this, to start learning things about it all. If (Spencer II) could get this in the classrooms, that would be really nice.”
Local | Sewickley Herald