SIA RU009578, Oral history interviews with Louis R. Purnell 1993-1994

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Summary

Title:
Oral history interviews with Louis R. Purnell 1993-1994
Dates:
1993, 1993-1994
Notes:
Louis R. Purnell (1920- ) was born in Snow Hill, Maryland. Early in his life he was able to realize his dream of becoming a pilot when the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) was instituted on the campus of his undergraduate institution, Lincoln University. In 1942, he was accepted into the seventh class of African American Army Air Force aviation cadets stationed at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama (the Tuskegee Airmen), and in 1943 joined the all-Black 99th Fighter Squadron. During World War II, he completed two tours of duty in North Africa and southern Italy with the 99th, and later the 332nd Fighter Group. After his return to the United States, Purnell worked with the Office of the Quartermaster General and the United States Book Exchange at the Library of Congress
In 1961, Purnell joined the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology and Paleobotany in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and remained there until 1968. During his career as a Technician in this Division, he published a catalog of type specimens of invertebrate fossils. In 1968, he moved to the Department of Astronautics of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). During his career in the Astronautics Department (renamed the Department of Space Science and Exploration in 1980), he progressed through the ranks from Museum Specialist to Curator. Purnell taught classes on aviation and astronautics for the Smithsonian Resident Associates, managed the artifact loan program, and travelled all over the world in search of space artifacts. He remained with this Department until his retirement in January 1985
Summary:
Louis R. Purnell was interviewed by Terrica M. Gibson, Institutional History Division, Office of Smithsonian Institution Archives. These interviews cover Purnell's childhood in Wilmington, Delaware, and Cape May, New Jersey; his education; love of flying; service during World War II; reminiscences of prominent Army Air Corps personnel, including General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.; work with the Office of the Quartermaster General, U.S. Book Exchange, NMNH and NASM; the circumstances surrounding the first lunar landing; the move of NASM from the Arts and Industries Building; relationship with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; and reminiscences of colleagues including G. Arthur Cooper, S. Paul Johnston, and Michael Collins
Topics:
African American history, History of science and technology, Paleontology, Aeronautics, Military history, World War, 1939-1945, African American air pilots
Subjects:
Purnell, Louis R, Johnston, S. Paul (Samuel Paul) b. 1899, Davis, Benjamin O. Jr. 1912-, Cooper, G. Arthur (Gustav Arthur) 1902-, Collins, Michael 1930-, National Museum of Natural History (U.S.), National Air and Space Museum (U.S.), Division of Invertebrate Paleontology and Paleobotany (NMNH), Arts and Industries Building (Washington, D.C.), Lincoln University (Pa.), Civilian Pilot Training Program (U.S.), 332nd Fighter Group, 99th Fighter Squadron, Office of Quartermaster General, United States Book Exchange, Department of Astronautics (NASM) Department of Space Science and Exploration (NASM), United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Army Air Corps, Tuskegee Airmen
Form/Genre:
Interviews, Collection descriptions, Audiotapes, Oral history
Local Number:
SIA RU009578
Physical Description:
13 audiotapes (Reference copies)

Finding Aids to Oral Histories in the Smithsonian Institution Archives

Record Unit 9578

Purnell, Louis R. interviewee

Louis R. Purnell Interviews, 1993-1994

Repository: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, D.C. Contact us at osiaref@si.edu.
Creator: Purnell, Louis R. interviewee
Title: Louis R. Purnell Interviews
Dates: 1993-1994
Quantity: 13 audiotapes (Reference copies).
Collection: Record Unit 9578
Language of Materials: English

Historical Note

Louis R. Purnell (1920-2001), was born on 5 April 1920 in Snow Hill, Maryland. He spent his youth in Delaware and Cape May, New Jersey. While beginning his undergraduate degree at Lincoln University, in Oxford, Pennsylvania, he was able to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot when the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) was instituted on campus. In 1942, he enlisted and was accepted into the seventh class of African American Army Air Force aviation cadets stationed at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama [the Tuskegee Airmen]. He joined the all-Black 99th Fighter Squadron in 1943. During World War II, he completed two tours of duty in North Africa and southern Italy with the 99th, and later the 332nd Fighter Group. He was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross and Ari Medal with Eight Oak Leaf Clusters.

After his return to the United States, Purnell returned to Lincoln University and completed a B.A. in Psychology. He took a position as a Speech Therapist at the Lena J. Sklar School in Germantown, Pennsylvania. He eventually moved to Washington, D.C., and held positions at the Office of the Quartermaster General and the United States Book Exchange at the Library of Congress. Purnell worked in a variety of jobs at the Smithsonian, eventually joining the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology and Paleobotany in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in 1961. In 1968, he moved to the Department of Astronautics of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). During his career in the Astronautics Department (renamed the Department of Space Science and Exploration in 1980), he progressed through the ranks from Museum Specialist to Curator, a position he held until his retirement in January 1985.

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Introduction

The Smithsonian Institution Archives began its Oral History Program in 1973. The purpose of the program is to supplement the written documentation of the Archives' record and manuscript collections with an Oral History Collection, focusing on the history of the Institution, research by its scholars, and contributions of its staff. Program staff conduct interviews with current and retired Smithsonian staff and others who have made significant contributions to the Institution. There are also interviews conducted by researchers or students on topics related to the history of the Smithsonian or the holdings of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Louis R. Purnell was interviewed for the Oral History Collection because of his long career at the Institution, including fifteen years as Curator of Astronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, and his pioneering work as an African American professional.

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Descriptive Entry

Purnell was interviewed in seven sessions between December 1993 and February 1994 by Terrica M. Gibson, an Intern with the Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives. The interviews cover his childhood in Wilmington, Delaware, and Cape May, New Jersey; his education, love of flying, service during World War II; reminiscences of prominent Army Air Corps personnel, including General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.; careers with the office of the Quartermaster General, U.S. Book Exchange, NMNH and NASM; the circumstances surrounding the first lunar landing; the move of NASM from the Arts & Industries (A&I) Building; relationship with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); and reminiscences of colleagues including G. Arthur Cooper, S. Paul Johnston, and Michael Collins.

This collection is comprised of approximately 12 hours of recordings and 179 pages of transcript. In total, this collection includes 24 original 7" reels, 24 preservation digital .wav files, 13 reference copy audio cassette tapes, and 24 reference copy digital .mp3 files.

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Use Restriction

Restricted.

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Preferred Citation

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9578, Purnell, Louis R. interviewee, Louis R. Purnell Interviews

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Container List

Box 1

Transcripts of Interviews

Interview 1: 15 December 1993:

Box 1 of 1
Covers childhood in Delaware, experiences at Lincoln University, and aviation training, including:
differences in education between Wilmington, Delaware and Cape May, New Jersey;
family life during the Great Depression;
experiences as one of few African-American students in school;
social and educational experiences at Lincoln University;
reminiscences about Lena Sklar School;
recollections of aviator Hubert Fauntleroy Julian ("The Black Eagle");
jobs worked throughout school and college;
reminiscences about early interest in aviation;
the CPTP;
training and life at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama;
experiences with segregation and living in the southern United States;
and a trip to New Orleans, Louisiana, for Mardi Gras in 1943.
Transcript, pp. 1-22, of audiotape recording, 1.5 hours.

Interview 2: 22 December 1993:

Box 1 of 1
Covers experiences in Tuskegee, Alabama; civilian and military aviation training; missions during World War II; reminiscences of individuals met during military service; and return from the war, including:
relationship between the town and base in Tuskegee, Alabama;
time stationed in Camp Shanks, New York, Oued N'ja, Morocco, Oscoda [Army Air Field], Michigan, Tunisia, and Sicily;
reminiscences of Commanding Officers of Tuskegee;
recollections of Tuskegee Airmen, including Philip Cochran and Charles Hall;
discussion of a book on the Tuskegee Airmen;
descriptions of aircraft flown, including the P-51 Mustang;
experience of completing his B.A.;
and marriage to Mildred Purnell.
Transcript, pp. 1-28, of audiotape recording, 2.0 hours.

Interview 3: 28 December 1993:

Box 1 of 1
Covers his return to Lincoln College; move to Washington, D.C.; work at Quartermaster General and U.S. Book Exchange; reminiscences of work and interactions with staff at the NMNH and NASM, including:
circumstances surrounding article he wrote for Air and Space Magazine;
his experiences as a veteran returning to college;
coursework at Howard University;
work methods when Chief Investigator of the Identification Section of Air Force Casualties;
reminiscences about office at the Library of Congress;
work at National Gallery of Art;
transfer to NMNH;
construction of wings to NMNH;
reminiscences of NMNH supervisors Erle G. Kauffman, G. Arthur Cooper, and Richard L. Cifelli;
work on nautiloids and cephalopods;
fieldwork and oceanographic expedition assignments;
racial issues relating to hiring of and work with Smithsonian staff;
and his creation and publishing of the catalog of the type specimens of invertebrate fossils.
Transcript, pp. 1-31, of audiotape recording, 2.0 hours.

Interview 4: 5 January 1994:

Box 1 of 1
Covers his tenure at NASM, the growth of NASM's collections and exhibit space; reminiscences of staff, and increasing public interest in astronautics, including:
NASM's use of the Arts & Industries Building;
construction of the NASM building;
challenges of exhibiting artifacts;
work as a Museum Specialist;
promotion to Assistant Curator;
teaching;
qualifications and backgrounds of staff;
process of selecting, collecting, storing, exhibiting and preserving astronautical artifacts;
relationships and agreements with NASA and McDonnell Douglas;
events at NASM during the Apollo 11 landing;
attendance at space launches at Cape Kennedy;
Silver Hill, Maryland, Storage facility;
reminiscences of Fred Durant and Mike Collins;
artifact loan program;
arrangements of exhibits to Japan;
and second marriage.
Transcript, pp. 1-24, of audiotape recording, 1.5 hours.

Interview 5: 14 January 1994:

Box 1 of 1
Covers the changing meaning of the term "Tuskegee Airmen"; selection, preservation, loaning, and exhibition of artifacts; construction and opening of NASM building; public interest and response to artifacts; acquisition and installation of Apollo 11 lunar module (LM); including:
move from A&I building;
installation of offices and exhibits to NASM building;
use of mannequins in the exhibition of planes;
ribbon cutting ceremony for NASM;
the Apollo-Soyuz project exhibit;
ideas and criterion for selecting artifacts;
travel to facilities to advise on care of on-site artifacts;
NASA tour of Apollo 11 LM to NASM;
inspection of loan sites;
foreign loans of artifacts;
details about Gemini 12, spacesuits, moon rock, Redstone missile, and Lindbergh plane, The Spirit of St. Louis;
and recollections of loans from individuals and corporations.
Transcript, pp. 1-33, of audiotape recording, 2.0 hours.

Interview 6: 4 February 1994:

Box 1 of 1
Covers creation of the Black Wings exhibit; Paul E. Garber Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland; public appearances; foreign tours of NASM artifacts; ideas on exhibit design; reminiscences of NASM staff; changes in Astronautics Department; preparation for retirement; including:
Robert Tripp and his concern of black representation in aviation at NASM;
use of black mannequins in plane exhibits;
meeting with staff of Congressmen Ronald V. Dellums and Barry Goldwater;
Dellums' commitment to exhibits about African American contributions to aviation;
reminiscences about his wife;
Silver Hill facility opening to the public;
discussion of Silver Hill staff's expertise and backgrounds;
reminiscences about directors of NASM, Michael Collins and Noel W. Hinners;
automated collection inventory to replace handwritten records;
Japanese and European tours of NASM artifacts;
celebration of tenth anniversary of Apollo 11;
discussion of race and professional advancement at NASM;
effects of changes in departmental staffing including curatorial positions;
thoughts on departmental name changes;
creation of the Space Suits exhibit;
guest appearance on the Shelly Tromberg show (WRC Radio) talking about the 99th;
experiences being interviewed about his time as a "Tuskegee airman";
gun-camera footage of 332nd planes shooting down Nazi aircraft;
reminiscences about NASM staff, Greg Kennedy, Derek Elliot, Don Lopez, and Walter Boyne;
and preparation for retirement.
Transcript, pp. 1-29, of audiotape recording, 2.0 hours.

Interview 7: 28 February 1994:

Box 1 of 1
Covers his final years at NASM; thoughts on his experiences at the Smithsonian, and retirement, including:
discussion of the black mannequins placed in Sea-Air Operations exhibit;
reminiscences of his time working at the Smithsonian and its value to the public;
thoughts on the founding and focus of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum;
comparison of his time at NMNH and NASM;
importance of educational background, experience, and race;
and participation in the Public Program Advisory Committee after his retirement.
Transcript, pp. 1-12, of audiotape recording, 1.0 hour.

Audio Recordings of Interviews

Interview 1: 15 December 1993:

Box 1 of 1
Total Recording Time: 1.5 hours
Original Masters: 3 7" reel-to-reel analog audiotapes
Preservation Masters: 3 digital .wav files
Reference Copies: 2 cassette audiotapes, 3 digital .mp3 files

Interview 2: 22 December 1993:

Box 1 of 1
Total Recording Time: 2.0 hours
Original Masters: 4 7" reel-to-reel analog audiotapes
Preservation Masters: 4 digital .wav files
Reference Copies: 2 cassette audiotapes, 4 digital .mp3 files

Interview 3: 28 December 1993:

Box 1 of 1
Total Recording Time: 2.0 hours
Original Masters: 4 7" reel-to-reel analog audiotapes
Preservation Masters: 4 digital .wav files
Reference Copies: 2 cassette audiotapes, 4 digital .mp3 files

Interview 4: 5 January 1994:

Box 1 of 1
Total Recording Time: 1.5 hours
Original Masters: 3 7" reel-to-reel analog audiotapes
Preservation Masters: 3 digital .wav files
Reference Copies: 2 cassette audiotapes, 3 digital .mp3 files

Interview 5: 14 January 1994:

Box 1 of 1
Total Recording Time: 2.0 hours
Original Masters: 4 7" reel-to-reel analog audiotapes
Preservation Masters: 4 digital .wav files
Reference Copies: 2 cassette audiotapes, 4 digital .mp3 files

Interview 6: 4 February 1994:

Box 1 of 1
Total Recording Time: 2.0 hours
Original Masters: 4 7" reel-to-reel analog audiotapes
Preservation Masters: 4 digital .wav files
Reference Copies: 2 cassette audiotapes, 4 digital .mp3 files

Interview 7: 28 February 1994:

Box 1 of 1
Total Recording Time: 1.0 hour
Original Masters: 2 7" reel-to-reel analog audiotapes
Preservation Masters: 2 digital .wav files
Reference Copies: 1 cassette audiotape, 2 digital .mp3 files

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