Opinion: Beyond 'Red Tails,' more hidden heroes of American history
George Washington Albright, center, was said to spy for Abraham Lincoln -- more forgotten history, Sana Butler writes.
January 19th, 2012
02:40 PM ET

Opinion: Beyond 'Red Tails,' more hidden heroes of American history

Editor's note: Sana Butler is a contributor to Newsweek magazine and wrote "Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves," about her 10-year search to find and interview the last surviving children of slaves. Those original interview tapes will be stored in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture

By Sana Butler, Special to CNN

(CNN) - The next few days will determine if "Red Tails," the World War II action film about the Tuskegee Airmen, is a box office success. But the story of the Airmen’s real-life courage is already in the record book that counts: history.

Few can argue the Tuskegee Airmen were one of the best fighting groups in the United States Air Force, then called U.S Army Air Force. Their record speaks for itself.

In a 2005 speech to introduce bipartisan legislation awarding the unit a Congressional Gold Medal, Michigan Senator Carl Levin pointed out that the Tuskegee Airmen’s superior skills during combat missions landed them in history books as the first aerial unit to sink a battleship with only machine guns.

In fact, white U.S bomber pilots and crew would put in specific requests to be escorted over Europe by Tuskegee pilots because of their respected record.

But due to the politics of collective memory, African-American heroes are often left out of the American story.

I learned this when I was independently confirmed information collected during my interviews with the children of slaves. Over 10 years, I found some 40 sons and daughters whose parents were born before 1865.

One interview in particular stands out as an example of the failure to document significant historical contributions made by black Americans during the founding formative years.

The interview was with 102-year-old William Lincoln Dunlap in Mira Loma, California. I spent most of the week asking questions about his grandfather, former Mississippi state Senator George Washington Albright.

Born in 1846 in Holly Springs, Albright spoke English, Portuguese and Spanish and was an oilman in Los Angeles before the Rockefeller family forced him to sell his land.

He was a state senator by 1874, but outside a freshman photo, little evidence exists about his voting record or speeches.

As a local legislative historian pointed out, white Democratic colleagues set out to erase the existence of African-Americans in the state Senate by ordering the destruction of public records that referenced them. This revision of history was not uncommon in capitol buildings throughout the south.

During my interview with Albright’s grandson, William Lincoln Dunlap mentioned that his grandfather was also a member of the “4-Ls”, known as Lincoln's Legal Loyal League.

Members of the league were responsible for telling “the slaves that they were free, to keep them informed and in readiness to assist the Union.” They also were spies for the North in the early days of the Civil War, before slaves were allowed to carry weapons.

“We had to work in dead secrecy,” Albright told a newspaper in 1937. “We had knocks and signs and passwords.”

Albright said the clandestine league started when he was 15, after “a committee of six went to Washington to see Lincoln.” And he named the six: Frederick Douglass, John Langston, James Lynch, and three white abolitionists, Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Sumner and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Excited and intrigued, I emailed the curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois to learn more: I had never heard of such of an organized committee run by slaves.

The curator’s response: “The outright lies of people in the 1890s astound me, and after that, well, one gives latitude to older people whose memories invent their past for them ... this, too, likely falls into another category of historical re-creation: seeing an outcome from chaos, some will assign a planned movement that brought about that outcome.”

But with additional investigation, I found that the comments from a “old” Mr. Albright were, in fact, correct. I found a book written in 1883 by U.S. Secret Service Chief Allan Pinkerton, based on classified and de-classified papers prepared for President Lincoln. In "The Spy of the Rebellion," Pinkerton tells of “trusty” Loyal League messenger that had direct access to him and his office.

And while 4-Ls aren't as well-known as the Tuskegee Airmen, their existence was also critical in American war victories.

In fact, slaves were considered to be enemy number one by Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the early days of the Civil War, even before they signed up to join the Union Army. In a letter in 1863, Lee wrote: “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes.”

I share this history when I visit colleges and universities during Black History Month. Every time, without fail, eyes pop open when I tell students about Mr. Dunlap and his grandfather, even at historically black institutions.

Thanks to the movie "Red Tails," more will know about the Tuskegee Airmen. But there are many more American heroes' stories to tell.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sana Butler.

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Filed under: Black in America • History • What we think
soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. jlacke

    25 bombers lost to enemy aircraft. Of the five units from the 15th Air Force who flew the same missions, over the same time period, and with the same aircraft, the Red Tails had the lowest total aerial victory score. All units in the 15th – not just the Red Tails – used the same tactic of generally staying close to the escorted bomber. There is no historical record of the Red Tails being specifically requested, although the tactics used by all units in the 15th were sometimes complimented. They did not sink a German destroyer, although they did damage a large ship, effectively putting it out of commission. Sources are official military records. weblogs.dailypress.com/news/local/military/blog/Ten_Myths_About_the_Tuskegee_Airmen.pdf

    January 21, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • jlacke

      The truth matters. Always, and even when it hurts the feelings of those who have believed untruths for far too long.

      January 21, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  2. davinia

    Prior to the "Baby Boomers," older Black Americans definitely had struggles, but most met it with defiance and determination that they knew who they were, what they contributed to society and no one could take that from them. They instilled this in the Boomer generation to have Black Pride and stand Tall. We know our history whether it was taught in class rooms or not. Many of the Black youth today don't care to know anything except materialism, and they have no pride. Changing this can only come in the home; through the family, and a the spiritual relationship with God. Then, take it to the classrooms, the streets, the world, and say, "I am Black and I am Proud," and I have always been, and will always be. I will always have worth and no one can take that away!

    January 21, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. UniQue

    Red Tails was a very inspiring movie. Great to go to the movies and actually feel in the atmosphere people were really excited about the movie. Positive WOW thats great !

    January 20, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Syble

    I enjoyed the "Red Tails" movie. a good movie to share with your children It is rated pg-13... Black History.

    January 20, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
  5. tamara reina


    January 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Thomas

    It was the US Army Air Forces not US Army Air Force.

    January 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Historian

    While the Tuskeege Airmen are worthy of our praise and admiration for their feats both on and off the battlefield. Air Force Historian Daniel Haulman has addressed the claim of "no bomber lost" and proved it to be inaccurate. While the 332 Fighter Group had an outstanding record of combat, it did indeed lose some bombers it escorted. From Aug of 1944 to March of 1945 they did not lose a bomber, but that is not true of the units entire tour of duty. Also, the claim of a battleship is wildly inaccurate. The Italian vessel was not a battleship, but a very large torpedo ship. While still a feat, the vessel was nearly as formidable and armored as a battleship.

    January 20, 2012 at 8:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Thomas

      Thanks for bringing that up. It is important that the correct history be known. The achievements of the Tuskeegee Airmen are notable enough without embellishment.

      William F. Holton, historian of Tuskegee Airmen Inc is also a good source. Haulman actually pulled the mission reports of the Tuskegee Airmen and found the Tuskgee Airmen, themselves reporting bomber losses during their missions.

      January 20, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Wind

    Until Texas' monopoly on American text books is broken most of American history will be left out. We paint a false image of what America really is.

    January 20, 2012 at 1:15 am | Report abuse |
  9. Dana

    The stories of the Tuskeegee Airmen will live forever. Thank you for the "4-L's" – looking forward to digging up more information on this topic. Back in 1981 when I was in high school I had to take an additional elective. I chose Black American History. I wanted to know ALL American history – as it should be. Unfortunately, my request was denied by my counselor, and then by the principal who told me that it "wasn't for us", that it would take away from the black students and that I wouldn't be welcome. I went all the way to the school board and still didn't get to take the class. So I started reading, the books I found had an amazing weath and richness of heroism, honor, intelligence, integrity, ingenuity, and passion for the United States. Everything I expected should be there. And everything I expected SHOULD have been taught to all students. I was glad to hear the year after I graduated that the curriculums were blended. However, a sadness still remains that for so long, so much of our rich heritage and history in the United States was hidden behind bigotry and hatefulness, and that still to this day, there is so much that has been lost or ignored. America is only as great as her citizens – of every race, creed, and color.

    January 19, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |

    Start with the congressional medal of honor. There was over 3500 people who won it did you know that only 18 won it twice. One of the people that came to mind is an obscure black private who acheived this astonishing feat in 1898 during the Spanish American war.

    January 19, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Susie

    Thank you for the information – this is important history for United States of America!

    January 19, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Donell Wilson

    Its important to understand that when we talk about American History, that we include all of the facts. What rubs African Americans in this country the wrong way is that the many contributions we made to this great nation is intentionally left out because it was unheard of to refer to a person of color as a hero. And keep in mind that inspite of all the hatred we received, we still showed love for this country and we went out and did our part to contribute to this country. I served honorably in the military and there will always be that hurt about how we have, we were, and will be treated by a majority of White America. They would rather take comfort in seeing us in a negative light in the news and on tv just to have the opportunity to say, "See, I told you so". There are many untold stories of African Americans and what we did for this country; unfortunately these stories aren't included in Jr./High school history classes. We learn about, "We were slaves, we were freed, and Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equal rights.. and thats it"! I just hope for our future generation, that when they re-write the history books, they include ALL of American History.

    January 19, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Robert Dees

    There is a great deal of positive black American History that the World is not aware of. In that day and time that was the mindset. Blacks were in the no class section of society, as some are today,in some minds. The truth will not be hidden forever though how hard some will try. GOD bless AMERICA!

    January 19, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ZACHARIAH 14


    January 19, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. pototoy

    Don't count on the Republican Party to bring up that story in any way shape or form.

    January 19, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Gilbert Nadeau

    Who can tell us about Major Taylor? Who out there knows about his accomplishments? He was a world champion long before Carl Lewis or Mohamed Ali.

    January 19, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  17. tuskeegee fan

    It is important to note that this is not the first movie to be made about the Tuskeegee Airmen. There was one of that name sometime in the 1990's starring Cuba Gooding Junior. I would hardly classify their story as hidden history either. They are a very active group of veterans dedicated to telling their story and are truly inspirational and well loved within the aviation community, and American history. Their service and sacrifice is an inspriation to many.

    January 19, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |