Undeniable ecstasy is the only way to describe my feelings after an interview referral to Mr. Joel Miller. Why? First, someone believed in my project enough to connect me with one of the few remaining Tuskegee Airmen. Second, the interview was to take place in Warren County, North Carolina, where both sides of my family were enslaved.
I confirmed the date with Mr. Miller and his wife, and I began my research. I mentally revisited my previous trips from my home in Charlotte, NC to Warrenton. I no longer needed a GPS, having mastered the route to the place where my ancestors provided forced legalized labor years ago.
Traveling along I-85 North on the day of the interview, I drifted off in one of those trance-like states we fall into on long stretches of familiar highway. I came up with more questions unrelated to Mr. Miller’s specific experiences as a Tuskegee Airman after realizing my prepared questions were too narrow. After all, the goal of this project is to capture individual lives in their entirety, not during a specific moment.
I contemplated asking questions about popular culture representations of the Tuskegee Airmen in movies such as Red Tails. I wondered if he and his peers were consulted; if he saw any of the films, and if he found one more realistic? As more questions ran through my head, I decided to allow the to spirit (and Mr. Miller) move me is the right direction.
My thoughts shifted to Clarksville, TN, where I was raised, and the approximate 600 miles between Clarksville and Warrenton. Today, this trip takes, at most, a couple of days. For my ancestors and their owner, Guilford Talley, the journey took two years. My Great, Great, Great, Great Grandmother, Obrina Talley, documented the journey in a pension record, and my Great, Great Grandmother, Pearer Talley, included the information in a family memoir.
I am a sucker for small towns, and in my mind the “big winners” of the lottery always come from small towns. My first stop in Warren County was the Texaco, where I received the familiar several southern smiles and hellos. Instinctively, I often wonder if I am related to anyone I encounter. I left after buying the obligatory lottery ticket.
Intrigued by old homes, I drove to see the homes that have stood firm for centuries. I photographed about 20 antebellum homes that dominate the downtown area. Thirsty from the humidity typical of an NC summer, I bought a bottle of water from a nearby store and headed to the Miller’s home.
I drove slowly past cow pastures, antique barns, dilapidated buildings, and businesses run by the locals. Warrenton is truly is a town stuck in the past, which is perfectly fine by me. I find it therapeutic to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city when I can.
About 15 minutes later, I arrived at the circular driveway. Time to fly shotgun with a Tuskegee Airman at the helm!