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Exhibit flies back in time

Flight was always on his mind.

As he plowed soybean fields and chopped cotton in his tiny hometown of Heth, Ark., Jerry Hodges passed the time by imagining himself streaking across the sky in the cockpit of a Navy plane. As a teenager growing up in the 1930s, it seemed an impossible dream. There was no such thing as a black fighter pilot and the Navy was not about to accept its first.

But on Sunday, a gray-haired Hodges regaled a small audience with tales of flying bombers during World War II. The slim 83-year-old earned his wings in 1944 with the U.S. Army Air Corps’ all-black combat unit, known as the Tuskegee Airmen. And now those history-making pilots are featured in the California African American Museum’s latest exhibit, “Tuskegee: The Journey to Flight.”

Running until Nov. 1, the exhibit at the museum in Exposition Park will be supplemented by question-and-answer sessions with members of the Tuskegee Airmen, a paper airplane workshop, a theatrical performance and other programs.

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Gathering the artifacts to display proved to be a challenge, said Tiffini Bowers, who curated the exhibit along with Dr. Christopher Jimenez Y West. Pilots have passed away and their belongings have been lost; items that are now coveted were not valued in the era of segregation.

“That’s because of the time period it took place,” Bowers said. “People were not of the mind-set that, ‘We need to save this, and this is historic and should be in a museum.’ Some of the Tuskegee Airmen’s efforts were underappreciated.”

Among the relics on display are olive-drab uniforms, giant replicas of squadron badges, pilot logs yellowed with age, and a royal-blue flight simulation plane, known among airmen as “the Blue Box.” Also on hand are original letters between pilot Cecil Peterson and Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been a supporter of the program. “Your letters and gifts have been very inspiring and have prompted me to try to be a better soldier,” Peterson wrote in green ink to the first lady on July 7, 1942.

Museum visitors Yvonne Pope, 37, and Michael Lockett, 36, said they were inspired after seeing the stories of the thousands who trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The couple, on a weekend getaway from Sacramento, had stopped by the museum and browsed the exhibit for an hour before starting the drive back home.

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Pope said the displays made her proud of her African American heritage and noted that the Tuskegee Airmen were not in her history books.

“It’s really profound,” she said. “You never see these pictures and it’s not spoken of that often.”

Lockett added, “It’s like the hidden truth.”

When 2nd Lt. Hodges entered the dimly lit room -- decades after he had first dreamed of becoming a pilot -- he leaned heavily on his cane and surveyed the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling, the giant black-and-white photos on the walls and the flat-screen TVs continuously playing documentaries.

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“This is rather nice,” he said, slowly making his way to a photo of a group of pilots who received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest expression of national appreciation awarded by Congress.

Now a Los Angeles resident with 16 great-grandchildren, Hodges has outlived many of his comrades. Such a tribute, he said, was long overdue.

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corina.knoll@latimes.com

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