Student Spotlight: Isis Gillespie

Student Spotlight: Isis Gillespie

Student Spotlight: Isis Gillespie

Anthropology AGRADE student Isis Gillespie recently accepted a position as a conservation technician for the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Museum in Detroit. Gillespie is currently an undergraduate anthropology major, and she will be graduating with her BA in May 2022. As an AGRADE student, she will then transition into Wayne State’s Anthropology MA program and complete her graduate degree over the course of the following academic year.  

At the Tuskegee Airmen Museum Gillespie will be working on the curation of a recovered aircraft flown by a Frank H. Moody. Moody was awarded his wings in February of 1944 but crashed in Lake Huron during flight exercises just two months later on April 11th. Exactly 70 years later, David Losinski and his son Drew discovered a wrecked airplane while diving in Lake Huron. They were able to use the airplane’s radio call sign to positively identify the plane. Michigan’s State Maritime Archaeologist and Lead investigator, Wayne Lusardi, led several expeditions to the wreck site to document the aircraft and its associated artifacts in 2015. In 2018, the State of Michigan issued an archaeological recovery permit for Moody’s aircraft to the National Museum of the Tuskegee Airmen. The state renewed this permit in 2021, and Lusardi, together with Dr. Brian Smith of the Tuskegee Airmen’s Museum, continued documentation of the wreckage and removal of artifacts from Lake Huron. All of the aircraft’s conservation work is being undertaken in a hangar at the Coleman Young Airport on Detroit’s east side. The airport is named after Detroit’s first Black mayor, who was a second lieutenant, bombardier, and navigator with the Tuskegee Airmen.

Isis Gillespie is the conservation technician and her responsibilities include cataloging and dating the artifacts, running electrolysis, and conducting archival research. Currently, only smaller pieces of the aircraft have been moved to the warehouse. There, the airplane’s aluminum fragments are soaking in sodium bicarbonate and the steel pieces are submerged in citric acid. These solutions will help to clean off any contaminants that compromise the metal’s structure, including zebra mussels. The back end of the plane was recently uncovered and will soon be shipped to the lab.

In order to better understand the records of aircraft maintenance and crashes of the Tuskegee Airmen, Gillespie will be flying down to Tuskegee and Montgomery, Alabama to examine archives that have not been previously studied through this perspective. The history of the Tuskegee Airmen has not been shared widely and, as a result, Gillespie noted, “their sacrifices have gone unrecognized”.

The Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated, determined young men who enlisted to become America’s first Black military aviators. They came from every section of the country, with the largest numbers of enlistees coming from New York City, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Alabama, and Detroit. Enlisted members were trained to be aircraft and engine mechanics, armament specialists, radio repairmen, parachute riggers, control tower operators, policemen, administrative clerks, and all of the other positions necessary to function as an Army Air Corp flying squadron or ground support unit. The tenacious bomber escort cover provided by the 332nd “Red Tail” fighters often discouraged enemy fighter pilots from attacking bombers they escorted. Gillespie hopes that her work will contribute to understanding how the Tuskegee airmen desegregated the military, and how their accomplishments and legacies influenced the civil rights movement.

Dr. Megan McCullen, Director of the Grosscup Museum of Anthropology at Wayne State, notified Gillespie about the opportunity. After one meeting and a long conversation, Dr. Brian Smith, Director of the Tuskegee Airman Museum and an alum of Wayne State’s Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. program, the first African American to do so, offered her the position.

The Tuskegee Airmen Museum recently moved from the grounds of Historic Fort Wayne to the Charles H. Wright Museum in Midtown. The Wright Museum is currently constructing its own gallery space at the museum to showcase the Airmen and a second gallery near the Coleman Young Airport. Once completed, the facility near the airport will feature a two-story gallery, a youth center, and a drone and simulation area where people can see what it was like to be a Tuskegee pilot. It will provide a space to commemorate the contributions of African Americans to the defense of the country during a period in its history when they were not treated as equal citizens, and it will serve as a community educational center, where youth may come to receive guidance and assistance in achieving excellence in their own career pursuits.

Prior to this opportunity, Gillespie spent six months as a museum educator at the Michigan Science Center.