Louis R. Purnell in Airman Uniform

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  • Louis R. Purnell, 1920-2001, a Tuskegee Airman and curator of Astronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, wears his airman uniform. Early on Purnell was able to realize his dream of becoming a pilot when the Civilian Pilot Training Program 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. In 1968, he moved to the Department of Astronautics of the National Air and Space Museum. 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 until his retirement in January 1985.


  • Purnell, Louis R
  • National Air and Space Museum (U.S.) Dept. of Astronautics
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.) Dept. of Paleobiology Division of Invertebrate Paleontology
  • National Air and Space Museum
  • United States Army Air Forces Fighter Group, 332nd
  • Tuskegee Airmen, Inc


Historic Images of the Smithsonian

Contained within

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9578, Box 1, Folder 1

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu


c. 1942

Restrictions & Rights

No restrictions


  • Uniforms, Military
  • WW II
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Personnel management
  • Aeronautics
  • Employees
  • Museums
  • Air pilots
  • World War, 1939-1945
  • African American air pilots
  • Museum curators
  • Smithsonian Institution--Employees
  • African Americans
  • African Americans in aeronautics


Washington (D.C.)


  • Photographic print
  • Portraits

ID Number


Physical description

Number of Images: 1; Color: Black and white; Size: 8w x 10h; Type of Image: Portraits; Medium: Photographic print

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