Finding Aids to Oral Histories in the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 9578
Purnell, Louis R., interviewee
Louis R. Purnell Oral History Interviews, 1993-1994
Louis R. Purnell (1920-2001), was born on April 5, 1920 in Snow Hill, Maryland. He spent his youth in Wilmington, Delaware and Cape May, New Jersey. While beginning his undergraduate degree at Lincoln University, in Lincoln University, 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 Air 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.
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.
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 291 pages of transcript.
Restricted. Contact SIHistory@si.edu to request permission.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Purnell, Louis R.
- Cooper, G. Arthur (Gustav Arthur), 1902-2000
- Johnston, S. Paul (Samuel Paul), 1899-
- Collins, Michael, 1930-
- Davis, Benjamin O., Jr., 1912-2002
- Gibson, Terrica M., interviewer
- National Air and Space Museum (U.S.)
- National Museum of Natural History (U.S.). Division of Invertebrate Paleontology and Paleobotany
- Arts and Industries Building (Washington, D.C.)
- Lincoln University (Pa.)
- Civilian Pilot Training Program (U.S.)
- United States. Army Air Forces. Fighter Group, 332nd
- United States. Army. Air Corps
- Tuskegee Airmen
- United States. Army Air Forces. Fighter Squadron, 99th
- United States. Office of the Quartermaster General
- United States Book Exchange
- United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- National Museum of Natural History (U.S.)
- Smithsonian Resident Associate Program
- National Air and Space Museum (U.S.). Department of Astronautics
- National Air and Space Museum (U.S.). Department of Space Science and Exploration
- Smithsonian Resident Associate Program
- World War, 1939-1945
- Science -- History
- Technology -- History
- African Americans -- History
- Military history
- Museum curators -- United States -- Interviews
- Oral history
- African American air pilots
- Wilmington (Del.)
- Cape May (N.J.)
- Tuskegee Army Air Field (Ala.)
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9578, Louis R. Purnell Oral History Interviews