By Brandon Martin
War is hell. But it also is a proving ground.
For most early wars in the United States, the involvement of African Americans was limited and controversial. Persistent unfounded stereotypes largely were responsible for the numerous quotas, exclusions and racial discrimination towards the minority soldiers. Put simply, military brass did not think that African Americans had the intelligence, ability or skills to be successful fighters.
They were proven wrong when the Tuskegee Airman flew into battle during World War II. Acceptance from Army Air Forces units didn’t come immediately. But, through numerous heroic performances, the Tuskegee Airman earned increased combat opportunities and eventually the respect of their peers.
The story was embodied in the 2012 film Red Tails.
One of those heroes, Lt. Col. Armour McDaniel, was from Martinsville-Henry County.
“When we were small, growing up, every time the family sat and talked, they talked about him,” said Imogene Draper of Martinsville. “I just knew he was great in some way.”
Draper said that McDaniel’s grandmother, Sally Ann Thomas Earley, and her great-grandfather, William Henry Thomas, were siblings and hearing about her lineage drove her to researching more about her war hero of a cousin.
“About 1992, I was listening to my dad and my uncle John. John was a military man. He served 20 years in the U.S. Army. When he returned to Martinsville, he and dad would sit and talk about all kinds of family things and they would always bring up Armour McDaniel,” Draper said.
She said as they were talking on this occasion, she decided to pick up the Sunday newspaper to jot down everything they were saying at the time. From there, her research began and she’s been engaged ever since.
Draper has compiled a scrapbook about McDaniel. “Anyone who has a Tuskegee Airman in the family has a military hero,” she said.
McDaniel passed away in 1989 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His name also was placed on the Wall of Honor at the Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum.
Even though their accomplishments were great at the time, it wasn’t until 2007 that the Tuskegee Airmen were truly honored by the nation when they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
“I couldn’t be there that day but we were very pleased that the nation recognized them. That was at the national level,” Draper said.
It would be another 12 years before Draper saw her cousin and his fellow heroes honored on the state and local levels.
She said she noticed a note in the newspaper in 2018 by Martinsville City Councilman Danny Turner. The note explained that he, with the George Waller Chapter Compatriot Group, visited Arlington National Cemetery every year to place Christmas wreaths on the graves of veterans from Martinsville-Henry County.
“It said if you knew of anyone to let them know,” she added. “Danny (Turner) took the information that I had which had Armour’s name, date of birth and cemetery plot number. Next thing I know, there is a picture of Danny by his grave in the newspaper.”
Turner’s gesture seemed to get the ball rolling, as far as Draper is concerned. Shortly after that, she said she received a call from Turner asking to meet her at a local restaurant. When she arrived, she found state Sen. Bill Stanley waiting for her. He had a resolution passed by the General Assembly honoring the Tuskegee Airman and a flag that was flown over the Capitol Building in memory of McDaniel.
“I was so pleased. You could just see the grin on my face,” she said. “I was honored and humbled that his hometown was now recognizing the contribution he made in serving his country. Over that time, I’ve collected these artifacts documenting the history that we are so proud of.”
Draper described McDaniel’s early life as well as his service in World War II and in the Korean Conflict. He also had been a prisoner of war.
“He was born where Patrick Henry Mall stands now. He attended Piedmont Christian Institute. It was the only high school available to African Americans in the early 1900s. Our state only provided public schools until 8th grade. He then went to Virginia State College. That was the state supported school for African Americans at his time,” she said.
According to Draper’s story, McDaniel returned home from college and received some life-altering advice from one of his cousins who told him about Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. He was encouraged to sign up.
“As they say, the rest is history,” she said. “Today, you just have to respect what they did. They never lost.”
McDaniel’s life can be a guide for young people, Draper said.
“I think that he serves as a role model for younger generations of our family as well as for young people in Martinsville-Henry County that get to know his story. They may want to do the same thing,” she said.
Draper said her 10-year-old cousin attends Carlisle School and admires McDaniel.
“I’ve given him copies of all of this,” she said. “The resolutions, the pictures. When I give him gifts related to this story, he puts them up on his stand. One of the things I’ve given him says ‘You can fly.’ He says to me, ‘I can do that.’ And that’s what it means to me to have Armour McDaniel in the family. It just makes me very proud.”
As she was growing up, Draper said that McDaniel already had set a standard.
“People like him, in my family, were college bound and it never occurred for me not to be. He opened the paths for me and other people in our family to leave Martinsville and to go off to college and realize our dreams through education,” she said. “My parents always pointed to people like Armour. That’s one of the ways he has inspired me to pursue education, and I’ve never stopped.”
Draper also inherited a little of McDaniel’s legacy — the will to follow her dreams.
“You should work hard. You should aim high, because he certainly did. I mean that both literally and figuratively,” she said with a laugh. “He took to the sky in affirming that value. He used to say that he felt as free as he ever would on earth when he was piloting his plane. ”
Draper said she was proud of her cousin for his contributions and the impact that the Tuskegee Airmen had on history.
“I think the story must be told, preserved, interpreted and shared with our current Martinsville-Henry County citizens because I think they would share my pride in that story,” she said. “I think for future generations, like my little cousin, they should know this. It should not be airbrushed out of history.”
When asked what it meant for her to see the group of men finally getting recognition, she said, “I’m so grateful that our country, when the medal was presented in 2007 to the Tuskegee Airmen, they stepped forward and recognized the significance of this contribution to American history. Even I run out of words. They say gratitude is memory of the heart. I don’t think I can be more grateful.”