JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, Washington, D.C. –
One of the great competitive edges the U.S. Air Force has over their adversaries is the excellence of their Airmen, past and present, particularly those who weren’t afraid to break barriers. Gregory Southall, 11th Civil Engineer Squadron chief of infrastructure, is acutely aware of this history and progression, not only as a Black man but also as the grandson of a Tuskegee Airman.
Southall and his family grew up hearing about the service of his grandfather, the late U.S. Air Force Maj. Clarence Gordon Southall. Service to the country became a family business.
“I've been with 11th CES for 30 years now,” Southall said. “My grandfather’s service inspired my whole family. We’re federal all the way around, either in the military or government. The Southall family is dedicated to the country and honoring his legacy.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were members of the first Black flying units in the U.S. armed forces, formed during a time when racial segregation was still the norm. They flew combat missions in World War II with unparalleled success and were highly decorated with three Distinguished Unit Citations, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses and numerous other individual accolades.
The Tuskegee Airmen were instrumental in preparing the nation for the racial integration of the military, which came in 1948 when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces and mandating equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services.
“The Tuskegee Airmen paved the way for us,” said Southall. “I’ve heard the stories about how they were treated and what they overcame. Today, nobody can tell me what I can and can’t do. We can do whatever we want and we have that freedom [in part] due to them.”
Southall has deep ties not only to service but to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in particular; he is the third generation of Southalls to work on the base. Both his grandfather and mother worked on JBAB before him. One of the streets in JBAB’s Hooe neighborhood, Southall Drive SW, also bears his family name.
Southall said his family’s history and honoring their legacy is what drives him.
“I want to keep their legacy going,” Southall said. “It’s how we were raised; if you fail, you just try again. I watched my family do it, so I know I can too.”
The Air Force has come a long way since the first Black pilots joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. The vision of diversity and inclusion has led to a stronger force which celebrates Airmen’s differences and creates a climate of respect.
“The Air Force is very diverse,” Southall said. “We see diversity all the way to the top. [JBAB’s] commander is a woman and the senior enlisted leader is Black. We all have those opportunities now. If you want to do something, you can.”
If he had the opportunity to speak with the Tuskegee Airmen today, Southall said he would want to express his gratitude. “Thank you for your service and everything you’ve done for America. I am where I am because you paved the way.”