“We encourage everyone who can to visit the center to see this and other exhibits,” says Ken Lucas, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, which contributed some of the funding to bring the exhibit to Louisville. “The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is an inspiring one for Kentuckians and all Americans, and the Muhammad Ali Center provides the perfect showcase.”
The Ron Spriggs Exhibit of Tuskegee Airmen is the personal accomplishment of Nicholasville resident Ron Spriggs, who was inspired by the 1995 HBO movie about the first unit of African-American pilots during World War II. An eight-year Air Force veteran, Spriggs felt the small Tuskegee Airmen exhibit at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, did not portray America’s first black military airmen in a positive light.
Since then, Spriggs started collecting Tuskegee Airmen memorabilia, photographs and historical details while learning about the unit’s connections to the commonwealth.
“I realized that Kentucky has a rich history in black aviation even before the Tuskegee airmen,” he says. “There were 12 cadets from Kentucky (among the Tuskegee Airmen.) Even before the Tuskegee Airmen experiment, Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell from Glasgow, Kentucky, was the first African American/Native American woman to get her pilot’s license. With her husband, she formed a company to teach people how to fly. She was instrumental in getting black pilots into the cadet program in 1941.”
In 2002, Spriggs started buying items for the exhibit, ranging from books to models of the planes the Tuskegee Airmen flew. From 2004 to 2008 he received some funding to help him purchase items, but now operates on a shoestring budget.
The exhibit includes a half-scale replica of the nose cone of a P51D Mustang whose pilot was one of the first to shoot down three German Me262 jet planes in one day. The pilot’s crew chief was a native of Henderson and Louisville, who painted his half of the nose cone to honor Miss Kentucky State University, Maggie Cathryn Clement. The replica was created and built by Steven Gray, CWO 4, USA Ret., a former helicopter pilot, of Nicholasville.
The exhibit also includes 15 replica scale-model planes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, and a uniformed torso mannequin of Tuskegee Airmen commander Col. Benjamin O. Davis.
“We are proud to showcase this extraordinary exhibit at the center so the community can experience a part of history and connect it to our state,” says Greg Roberts, president and CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center. “Everyone needs to see this. And it’s a great learning opportunity for kids.”
The exhibit will be on display at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville from Friday, Feb. 4 through Monday, Feb. 28.