Tuskegee Airman Gains Newfound Fame Thanks to 'Red Tails' Movie
By Kiratiana Freelon on February 28, 2012 11:22am
LONG ISLAND CITY — For nearly 70 years, Dabney Montgomery's wartime heroics had gone almost unnoticed.
But the 88-year-old Harlem man, who is one of the few remaining Tuskegee Airmen, has suddently become a minor celebrity thanks to a new movie.
"Red Tails" tells the story of the historic group of airmen who were the first African-American military aviators who operated during World War II when many states in the U.S. were still subject to Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation.
Montgomery was a member of the ground crew.
He's now using the attention the movie has generated to educate New Yorkers about the contribution African-Americans made at that time.
His latest speaking engagement came Monday at Queens Vocational and Technical High School in Long Island City, Queens. He also spoke last week to federal employees at the Social Security Administration building in Jamaica as part of a Black History Month program.
Montgomery, a longtime community activist in Harlem, said he garners the most delight from events like these, where he can educate generations of Americans about the camaraderie among the Tuskegee Airmen.
"We try to emphasize the contribution of African-Americans to this nation that is not taught in the school system," Montgomery said.
"I do it free because I think that school kids should know that African-Americans have done major contributions to this nation to keep it alive and going."
Montgomery credits the recently released movie, which stars Terrence Howard and Method Man, with revitalizing interest in the Tuskegee Airmen.
He calls the film "a work of art" and said it accurately depicts "the fellowship that we had and the bravery that we showed ... when no one else would do this."
Montgomery was born in Selma, Ala., in 1923, and began his military service during World War II when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps, now the United States Air Force. He was a grounds crew member with the Tuskegee Airmen in southern Italy from 1943 to 1945.
After the war, Montgomery moved to New York City and joined one of the state's oldest congregations, Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Harlem. He became a Sunday school teacher and eventually rose to youth director, a position he held from 1970 until 1999.
He was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in 2007 after President George W. Bush signed a bill authorizing the award for all documented and original Tuskegee Airmen.
Montgomery is active with Manhattan Community Board 10, where he sits on the parks and recreation sub-committees. He said being on the board helps him stay up-to-date on all that's happening in the ever-changing neighborhood.
"When I came here back in 1954, Harlem was all black," Montgomery said. "When you walked down the street or went shopping or anything, you only saw black people.
"Now you see an international community: Asians, white population, the Puerto Rican population."
He added that he has no plans to slow down, despite his age.
"That's me, that's my lifestyle," he said. "As long as I can move around, I get involved. There is so much to do here."