When I was a high school senior almost 40 years ago, the English teacher assigned us to choose a hero, read a book, and write an essay explaining why. I chose Jackie Robinson for reasons I don’t remember exactly and didn’t understand deeply. I recognized that was an atypical choice for a Jewish girl growing up in predominantly white suburban New Jersey, but preferred reading sports books since my elementary school days. Perhaps it was related to my experience as an 8-year-old breaking the gender-barrier to play in the local baseball and basketball leagues, along with my older sister, when the new Title IX law made that possible. Perhaps it was related to my friendship through pick-up basketball with a Black family in my hometown from nearby Newark — where my parents were married, my father went to college, my paternal relatives are buried, and my paternal cousins grew up and participated actively in the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps it was my budding Jewish identity and social justice values, knowing family friends who were Holocaust survivors.
Three years ago I went to an education festival at the National Air and Space Museum near my house in multicultural suburban Virginia, even though I have no particular interest in aviation. I noticed an elderly gentleman sitting alone at a bookselling/signing table with his biography, along with a pencil and paper to keep track of sales. Then I saw a sign identifying him and paused in amazement, as if I had seen the burning bush: Tuskegee Airman, born Dec. 7, 1919. I walked over and said casually, “I see you’re gonna have a big birthday next year.” He smiled gently and replied humbly, “God willing and if the creek don’t rise.” Charles McGee had a very big 100th birthday indeed — which included a belated promotion to general, a moment of national honor at the State of the Union, another such moment at the Super Bowl coin toss, and piloting a plane — as he had done when he turned 99, and as he had done 409 times as a fighter pilot in Europe during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
That’s how I made acquaintance with my new hero, to add to a handful of Holocaust survivors I knew, who rebuilt rich lives in America and contributed their stories, values, and energies to serve the Jewish community and others. He opened my eyes to see American history through a longer and finer lens of social progress at a personal level. During the years of serving in an experimental segregated unit in WWII, shortly before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, the Tuskegee Airmen disproved the myth of racial inferiority and defended both American and Jewish lives. In so doing they built the strongest case for the subsequent integration of the military and amplified the moral imperative to deliver on the promise of equality across society.
Regretfully, I hesitated and didn’t buy his book that day. However, I Googled him soon afterward and started to learn his story, and grew to understand and admire the incredible feats of the Tuskegee Airmen as pioneers. Thankfully, I didn’t hesitate when his inspiration gave me the idea to invite him as the special guest of honor for a Black History Month speaker event that I led at work last year. Amazingly, he accepted my invitation and joined via Zoom together with his daughters, and honored us all with his presence. Belatedly, I did read and relish his biography, written by Charlene McGee Smith — his eldest daughter and namesake — who spoke beautifully on his behalf.
Why did he choose to come for my modest occasion? After a highly decorated 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force, he never retired and continued to serve our country as a founder, leader, and ambassador of the Tuskegee Airmen’s national association. He believed deeply in the bedrock values of education and equal opportunity, and enjoyed making his priceless contributions to encourage the next generations.
I know he also came to listen to the guest speaker: Joylette Goble Hylick, eldest daughter of Katherine Johnson — the Hidden Figures hero and NASA research mathematician, who died one year prior at the age of 101 after a brilliantly well-lived life. I never met Mrs. Johnson but feel as if I did from reading her memoir, watching interviews, visiting museum exhibits near her homes in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and Hampton, Virginia, and interacting with Joylette to share her mother’s uplifting legacy with others.Gen. McGee’s recent passing at the age of 102, fittingly on the Sunday before MLK Day, prompted me to reflect on what Black History Month means to me. When Carter Woodson founded Negro History Week nearly a century ago as its precursor, his intent was to promote learning and celebrate the achievements of African Americans by all Americans. I recall going to a Black History Month event once a dozen or so years ago, to hear Harry Belafonte tell his story memorably at Wellesley College; there I learned for the first time about his vital role in supporting Martin Luther King Jr. and fundraising for civil rights campaigns, which led me to read their memoirs and to visit major sites in Atlanta, Memphis, Little Rock, and Oxford. But that was the only one I ever attended. Like Christmas, I had thought Black History Month didn’t belong to me. Now I know it offers a profound opportunity to engage people in the stories and lessons of great Americans.
Charlene spoke honestly and compellingly about the current racial reckoning, saying: “You have to know Mrs. Johnson’s story, and you have to know Gen. McGee’s story. You have to understand there is greatness in the history of African Americans in this country.” In response, I could only say: Amen.
The memorial tributes to Gen. McGee have been tremendous, including heartfelt Twitter messages by the secretary of defense Lloyd Austin and the chief of the U.S. Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, both African American. Vice President Kamala Harris did likewise and attached the video of her call for his 102nd birthday, saying: “I can’t thank you enough, and on behalf of the president and myself and our nation, I just want to thank you for all that you have done, and you know, telling your story is about telling the story of our nation.”
I am but an ordinary citizen with a wee small voice, who plays a barely-speaking bit part, as one of the many among We the People, who have been trying for centuries to form a more perfect union. Soon after the event, Charlene sent the nicest thank-you note I will ever receive, affirming her belief that such humanizing encounters matter. Gen. McGee and his younger daughter Yvonne called me kindly as well. (I remember telling him that I woke up early that morning feeling my nerves, and calmed down a bit when I thought of him, since no one was shooting at me.) I continue to play my bit part in my corner of the country, and try to follow in Gen. McGee’s and Mrs. Johnson’s giant footsteps in very small but meaningful ways. They taught and encouraged me to “pay it forward” for racial justice, by using their epic stories and my own educational privilege to reach out and teach others.
I knew to invite Gen. McGee because I perceived intuitively that he was like Ann, who never retired from telling her story to young generations. On display near her kitchen table was an oversized photo of the Jewish high school class that invited her to speak. Together with her son and primary caregiver Jay, she looked beautiful and vibrant in her late 80s, even as she lived with pancreatic cancer.
We are all part of each other’s stories in The American Story. May we choose our heroes wisely, and be so incredibly fortunate and blessed to know them.
Epilogue: B’Zchut (On the Merit)
Joylette texted me a few minutes after the Black History Month event saying, “Great program.” (Wow, coming from Mrs. Johnson’s daughter, that means something.) I texted back that her words were soulful. The most heart-warming moment, in my eyes, was her response when I asked during the Q&A what the Tuskegee Airmen mean to her, as a member of her fine family:
“Those men were on a mission, they did their job, and we got the best of the best… The fact (is) that during World War II they had to beg to be involved… I just adore them. Every time I see something about them, I’m so happy. I was with Mom when she was honored with one of them a few years ago in Virginia. So, my hat’s off to Gen. McGee, and I’m so happy to share the day with him.”
That expressed my sentiments exactly. Listening to the event recording a year later, a few days after attending the public viewing in Washington, D.C., and watching the memorial service at his church via livestream, I sat back and tried to imagine how it felt for him to hear that genuine gift of words, as he sat at home with his daughters listening silently. Connecting their families with Joylette’s voice was the best expression of gratitude I could give him. Yvonne sent me a sweet email that I still treasure: “Thank you for saluting Dad. He was able to listen and really enjoyed, just sorry he wasn’t up to being on camera (still in PJs) or answering questions.” Together we fulfilled the fourth commandment of lich’vod horim — honoring parents. I like the image that he was able to come comfortably, without his formal uniform and impressive medals, and enjoy a heimish style of celebration.
It was a sacred moment, beyond words, when I saw him for the last time. After giving my condolences and hugs to Charlene and Ron, his son, I paused beside his casket and turned to him panim-el-panim — face-to-face. I looked at his endearing gentlemanly face and distinctive features, with eyes closed and lips sealed. I looked at his hands holding a folded American flag, and his chest wearing the distinguished traditional red jacket of the Tuskegee Airmen as proud Red Tails. I felt the silence of his presence — after all the historic sights he saw, kind words he spoke, and acts of bravery and human decency he did in his tremendously full lifetime of giving. The echo of his voice and his dugma ishit — personal example — are inside me now to give back. The seemingly mystical seeds of inspiration that he sprinkled toward me at that first encounter three years ago have since grown into blooms with roots.
I told Charlene and Ron that their Dad reminded me of another general, Yitzchak Rabin, whose public viewing I attended after his tragic assassination in 1995, when I was living and working in Jerusalem on Israeli-Palestinian cooperation projects. What I have begun to do to contribute to the racial reckoning b’govah eynayim — at eye-level (literally, the height of eyes, implying a sense of equality) — I do because of Gen. McGee. I do it b’zchuto — literally, on his merit, better translated as thanks to the privilege of knowing what I know because of him.
Debby Greenberg ’87 has worked in software consulting for federal/state/local governments, and learned how to lead her first Black History Month event by working in Jerusalem on Israeli-Palestinian cooperation projects. She lives in a diverse and inclusive community in Herndon, Virginia.