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BLACK WINGS: American Dreams of Flight

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Opening February 2018

Black Wings: American Dreams of Flight, an exciting new addition to the Air Zoo's permanent collection

Take a visual journey through African-American contributions to flight...

When the Wright brothers signaled the arrival of the new air age with their historic flight in 1903, they sparked America's fascination with and exploration of the skies. While many African Americans were enthusiastic about flight, they still faced racial discrimination and were denied access to formal training as pilots and mechanics. The Smithsonian exhibition Black Wings: American Dreams of Flight chronicles the powerful group of aviation pioneers who challenged these obstacles and created their own legacy in the world of flight.

Mae Jemison featured in Black Wings exhibit at the Air Zoo

"The Smithsonian's Black Wings exhibit so poignantly tells the stories of the trials and triumphs of some of our country's most heroic aviators and space pioneers. The Air Zoo is honored to bring these extraordinary heroes to life for all our guests from Southwest Michigan and beyond," said Troy Thrash, president and CEO of the Air Zoo.

This important exhibition chronicles some of the most important black figures from the past and present who helped make careers in flight and space exploration possible and shaped the lasting legacy African Americans would forever leave on aviation. Divided into six sections, Black Wings chronicles the evolution of aviation through the stories of African Americans who dreamed of flight, left their mark and helped pave the way for those who would follow. Some of the figures whose contributions are explored include Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to receive her pilot license in 1920; the Tuskegee Airmen, the first military division of African-American pilots who fought in World War II; and Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly in space.

Justin Tomkowiak: Boy inspired by visit to Air Zoo

During its three month stay in 2015 as part of the national SITES tour, the Air Zoo had nearly 40,000 visitors to the museum, touching the lives of many in our community. In an interview with local public radio station WMUK titled "Boy's Dream to be Pilot Takes Flight at Air Zoo's Black Wings Exhibit", 11-year-old Justin Tomkowiak shared the profound impact the exhibit had on him. "It like made me want to be a pilot because of those people," he said. "Like, I just want to be one of them."

During the same interview, Justin's mother added that, "People were well-educated. I think you get a source of pride because you see how all these well-educated black people back then had the knowledge to just form a group and say we want to be just like the Wright Brothers...I think it's very exciting to see we had a voice in aviation too. I think a lot of times people don't know that."

Chauncey Spencer featured in Black Wings exhibit at the Air ZooIt is this inclusive and inspirational story of American history that the Air Zoo is committed to telling, and we are thrilled that Black Wings: American Dreams of Flight will have a permanent home here in Southwest Michigan. The story of the enormous obstacles black aviators overcame and the important contributions they went on to make should be shared as widely as possible. This amazing exhibit charts the groundbreaking, history-making, and patriotic paths of some very valiant men and women.

The exhibition is based on the book "Black Wings: Courageous Stories of African Americans in Aviation and Space History" (HarperCollins, 2008) by exhibition curator Von Hardesty of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in collaboration with the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the exhibition was made possible by the generous support of MetLife Foundation. In 2017, the exhibit was donated to the Air Zoo for educational purposes by the Smithsonian Institution following the conclusion of its original 2011-2016 coast-to-coast tour.

The permanent installation of Black Wings at the Air Zoo is made possible by generous support from the following local sponsors:
                              Black Wings Exhibit

The exhibit will be on display with Tuskegee Airmen, a large format painting by Plainwell-based artist Andrew J. Woodstock, which placed in the top 50 at the international art competition, ArtPrize, in 2012. In his artist statement for the piece, Woodstock said, "I hope my work gives the viewer an understanding of the historical significance the Tuskegee Airmen hold in U.S. military history. As they destroyed the enemy, they also destroyed the belief that a man should be judged by the color of his skin."

Andrew Woodstock with painting Tuskegee Airmen at the Air Zoo

The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum maintains the largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world, is a vital center for research into the history, science, and technology of aviation and space flight, and memorializes the national development of aviation and space flight. Visit online at

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 60 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play. Exhibition descriptions and tour schedules are available at
Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program