Jacqueline Withers was an art student at College of DuPage when a friend asked if she had ever thought of making the Tuskegee Airmen a theme of one of her exhibits. Unfamiliar with the history of America's first black military pilots, Withers rented a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen and went to the library to do more research.
She was stunned at their bravery, the obstacles they overcame to become fighter pilots during World War II, and the racism they still faced when they returned.
“It was a part of black history that was not taught,” Withers said. “I wondered, ‘How many people don't know this about these guys.'”
Withers decided to help change that by starting the Tuskegee Airmen Mural Project. Then living in Westmont, she called schools and asked to work with students to paint the history of the black Americans who graduated from Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Two of those murals still hang in Westmont Junior High School and Downers Grove South High School.
Withers made it her personal goal to paint a Tuskegee Airmen mural in every state.
But she didn't stop with painting. Withers, who moved to Colorado in 2006, started the Take Flight Leadership Aviation/Bessie Coleman Fly Girl Chapter in Denver to encourage disadvantaged young people to follow their dreams, pursue careers in aviation and become leaders.
She recently brought five young women to Chicago to observe the 80th anniversary of the Bessie Coleman Flyover, honoring the first African-American woman to earn an international pilot's license. Coleman, who had moved to Chicago from Texas, died in a plane accident in 1926, but had dreamed of establishing an aviation school.
One of the young women who attended the flyover, Coraima Chavez, 16, said she wanted to fly for several years when she joined Take Flight Aviation Leadership last summer. Since then, she has attended ground school, gone up in the air with pilots and worked with others to help build a biplane.
She hopes to earn her pilot's license this summer.
“It has basically helped me think about my dream and how to achieve my dream to become a pilot,” she said. “It helped me become more confident in myself.”
Last fall, Chavez's essay on the Tuskegee Airmen made her one of the three winners in a national contest sponsored by Southwest Airlines. She said being involved in the flight program also has motivated her to get better grades.
“She (Withers) is the one who got me where I am today,” she said. Achieving dreams
Young people in the Take Flight Leadership Aviation/Bessie Coleman Fly Girl Chapter in Denver are required to maintain high grades and receive mentoring. They take training provided by the Experimental Aircraft Association's Young Eagles program and are eligible to test for a pilot's license at age 14.
“You can get your pilot's license before your driver's license,” Withers noted.
Participants as young as 9 may start in the program and pursue dreams other than becoming pilots, she said. She encourages them to become leaders and gives award for accomplishments such as serving as speakers at events. One won an EEA scholarship to attend aviation training in Oshkosh, Wis., this summer and a national Tuskegee Airmen art contest.
Withers estimates she has reached 25,000 young people through painting murals in schools and the Take Flight Aviation Leadership/Bessie Coleman Fly Girl Chapter.
“I've been able to reach the souls of children,” she said.
She received the National Youth Day 2010 Hero of the Year award from the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. for her work and has met some of the original Tuskegee Airmen,
“My whole life opened up,” Withers said. “You read about history, but (when you meet the airmen) you see history.”
Since graduating from COD, Withers has earned a bachelor's degree from the Art Institute of Colorado, a master's degree in management and is working on a doctorate in organizational leadership. She works as a freelance artist and motivational speaker.
Withers said she realized while attending an event in which she had a prominent role that she was no longer the girl in the background she had been while growing up in a family of 12 children in Chicago.
“I wish my dad were here to see that,” she said. “My dad was my biggest person who inspired me. (He said), ‘You can do anything you want to do if you apply yourself.'”
Teacher and mentor
Withers also has received continuing support from Jennifer Hereth, an art professor at COD who seeks to instill in her students a sense of social consciousness. Withers had done art work, but not painted until Hereth encouraged her to take up the brush.
“If she sees your potential, she helps you bring it out,” Withers said. “I never thought I would be painting walls, murals. I wouldn't have if it hadn't been for her.”
Hereth said she recognized that Withers was a highly motivated artist with a personal vision. She encouraged her to use her art to put out a message from her heart.
“I am in awe of where she has taken that social consciousness,” Hereth said. “She has taken that step many artists dream of.”
Hereth has been able to channel financial support for Withers' work with youth through IArtists, a group of Chicago area artists who encourage art and social change.
Withers said funding is always a challenge. So far, she has painted Tuskegee Airmen murals in six states.
“The problem is getting to every state,” she said.
One challenge Withers has not taken up is learning to fly herself.
“The kids always tease me, ‘Miss Jacqueline, when are you going to learn to fly?'” she said. “I haven't had time.”
Learn more about Jacqueline Withers and her Tuskegee Airmen murals at www.artinstitutes.edu/alumni-success/jacqueline-withers-freelance-artist-and-motivational-speaker-spirit-within-art-work-3119713.aspx and takeflightleadershipavation.blogspot.com/2011/08/eyes-in-sky-murals-by-jacqueline.html