RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond is home to more than nine million artifacts. But none may be more personal than a scrapbook made nearly 80 years ago.
“It is a piece of a much larger historical story,” senior curator Dr. Karen Sherry said studying a collection of newspaper clippings and other memorabilia neatly assembled on 60 pages. “Every page is practically bursting with a mother’s love.”
The book was created by Ruth Givings.
In 1919, her son Clemenceau McAdoo Givings was born.
“Whenever she saw mention of her son in the newspaper, she was sure to clip it out and add it to the scrapbook. Very proud momma,” Sherry said.
2nd Lt. Givings has the distinction of being the first Black Richmonder to earn his wings as a Tuskegee Airman.
The Army Air Corps unit of Tuskegee Airmen was made up of African American fighter pilots in the segregated military during World War II.
“In one letter, he describes his love of flying to his parents and he describes being up in the air in the blue sky,” Sherry said. “There are [also] a lot of cards. Greeting cards in the scrapbook.”
Ruth snipped and saved, capturing her son’s life in black and white from the momentous to the mundane.
“We also have an earlier document from when he graduated from elementary school,” Sherry said. “His mother also kept his bus tickets from that visit.”
The museum’s collection also includes Clem’s megaphone: A keepsake he used before graduating from Virginia Union University.
“I think it has that direct link to a historical figure. A direct link to the past. One that feels incredibly immediate,” Sherry said.
While the scrapbook heralds great accomplishments, it also detailed a great loss.
“When she was saving these items clearly she never probably would never lose him at age 24,” Sherry said.
On March 18, 1944, 2nd Lt. Clem Givings experienced an engine failure during a mission. The pilot ejected but drowned off the coast of Italy.
The pilot is buried at Sicily/Rome American Cemetery. He rests among 7,857 other heroes who gave their lives during the war.
“He was being asked to serve his country, to sacrifice for his country that wasn’t giving him full and equal citizenship rights, but he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and indeed he did,” Sherry said.
His mother Ruth even preserved the Western Union Telegram that arrived at the family home at 100 East Leigh Street in Jackson Ward.
“Here was a man who faced the oppression of Jim Crow America, who had to fight to get the opportunities to serve as a Tuskegee Airman,” Sherry said.
Sherry can identify with the pain Ruth Givings must have experienced. She lost her sister during the first Gulf War.
“In a sad way, it kind of heightens the tragedy that he was lost at such a young age. Because clearly, this was a young man who had ambitions, who was a go-getter, and who was going places,” Sherry said.
A friend of the Givings donated the scrapbook to the museum many years ago.
“A lot of the newspaper clippings that make up the scrapbook are very brittle and fragile,” Sherry said.
The 80-plus-year-old pages are undergoing painstaking preservation at the museum.
“This was clearly a labor of love for her, and you sense that immediately when you’re standing in front of this object,” Sherry said.
Sherry believes this artifact is not just a precious thread in the fabric of Virginia and American history. It forever preserves the short life of a mother’s only child who overcame obstacles so he could soar through the skies.
“She recognized not only on a personal level that her son’s life and service was important but on a national level for the history of our country,” Sherry said.
Clem Givings was one of 84 Tuskegee Airmen who were lost during WWII. Mrs. Ruth Givings was presented with her son’s Purple Heart after the war.
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