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Family history meets American history

By Bradley West '13
August 28, 2012

Jessica Ballard '13 at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, where the first African American military pilots — including her grandfather — were trained during World War II.

As Jessica Ballard '13 began to work on the research paper for a history seminar, she decided to use a primary source that no one else had access to — her grandfather.

Inspired by a recent film about the Tuskegee Airmen, Ballard wanted to write about the everyday lives of African American aviators in World War II. So she interviewed Captain Alton Ballard, her grandfather and a former Tuskegee Airman, about his experiences in the war and in the years since.

"My grandfather was willing to help me any way he could, and I realized how fortunate I am to have a relative who could give me very detailed insight about his experiences at age 92," says Ballard, who is majoring in history and American racial and multicultural studies at St. Olaf College and plans to pursue a graduate degree in history.

This project not only gave Ballard the chance to place her family's personal history into a broader historical context, but also allowed her to highlight a part of history that has been overlooked for many years. 

Artist Stan Stokes painted this portrait of Captain Alton Ballard, Jessica Ballard's grandfather, using a photo taken of the young airman during World War II. Alton Ballard flew 65 successful missions and was awarded the Air Medal for meritorious achievement.

"The Tuskegee Airmen were hesitant to discuss their service in World War II because of the lack of recognition and the mistreatment they received from the U.S.," Ballard explains. "My grandfather, like many airmen who are still living, is just now opening up about his experience. This is a part of history that needs more visibility."

After completing the research paper in the spring, Ballard continued to dig into the history of the first African American military aviators. This summer she traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama, to see where the airmen completed basic training. She also looked through Tuskegee University's archives to find more primary sources about the airmen and about how the military viewed the fighter group. 

Studying in Alabama has allowed Ballard to broaden her research beyond the personal stories of her grandfather. "I have also focused my research on some of the women who worked on the air base and trained with the airmen," she says. 

Having spent the summer gathering more information about this topic, Ballard will complete an independent history research project under the guidance of St. Olaf Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald in spring 2013. 

"Ever since the 1960s, historians have been broadly interested in the social history of regular people rather than the elite: workers, immigrants, African Americans, and women, among others," Fitzgerald explains. "So this interest in family stories fits well with what has been happening in academic circles."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or