Ken Rapier is a man on a mission.
As a certified flight instructor and president of the Chicago Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, the 67-year-old is committed to keeping the legacy of the famed “red tails” alive.
“They were a group of great men, and great men leave legacies for all of us,” said Rapier, who will visit campus Feb. 19 to tell his story. “They showed with courage and determination, you can overcome adversity.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, the military remained racially segregated, and many blacks were restricted to labor or support positions. These brave men demonstrated irrefutably that if given equal opportunity, they could fly and support combat units as well as anyone else.
It’s a personal story for Rapier, who grew up on Chicago’s south side. His cousin, Gordon Napier, was an original member of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“Gordon used to come to Chicago to visit us, and as I got into my teen years I started to ask more questions,” he said, adding that Gordon passed away in 2014. “When I learned that he was a fighter pilot in World War II, it really piqued my interest and I had to do more research to find out what was going on there.”
More than 70 years later, Rapier said there are still many lessons to be learned from the Tuskegee Airmen.
“The Tuskegee Airmen message is very important and pertinent for today,” Rapier said. “Set your standard at excellence just like the Tuskegee Airmen did. If you do this, it will lead to success in everything you do.”
Napier will be at Northern Illinois University at 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19, to share the Tuskegee Airmen story. While observing the past, he also hopes to inspire students to consider a future in aviation.
“Our roots in aviation are firmly planted in the Tuskegee Airmen,” Rapier said. “Our mission is to observe and continue their legacy and to introduce young people to the wonderful world of aviation. Exposure is the key, and then they can decide if they would like to investigate things further.”
The presentation, sponsored by the NIU Veterans Association and Military Student Services, is part of the month-long celebration of Black Heritage Month.
“Our goal is for Black Heritage Month to be a platform for African-American culture,”said Joy Coates, associate director of the Center for Black Studies. “We have programs that demonstrate social events, cultural events and academic events.”
Coates, who serves as the event’s chairperson, said the themes of culture, unity and responsibility inspire all Black Heritage Month activities.
“We think it’s a great opportunity for individuals to come out and learn something new,” Coates said. “When you talk about intercultural interaction and communication, these are really the focus of all the events of Black Heritage Month.”
Black Heritage Month kicks off Monday, Feb. 2, with an opening ceremony at 6 p.m. in the Holmes Student Center Duke Ellington ballroom. A complete list of events, which are free and open to the public, can be found at the Center for Black Studies website.
by Jane Donahue