Her father, Bernard Knighten, never spoke of his first wife, Luana.

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'Tuskegee Love Letters' Is True Story About an Inheritance More Valuable Than Money

(February 29, 2012)

LAS VEGAS, NV -- (Marketwire) -- 02/29/12 -- Actress and playwright Kim Russell, author of "Tuskegee Love Letters," www.tuskegeeloveletters.com, was an adult when she finally got to know her mother, who died when Russell was just 2 months old.

Her father, Bernard Knighten, never spoke of his first wife, Luana.

"He never shared stories, never said I looked like her, unless prompted to by my aunts," says Russell, author.

Eventually, though, he gave her some letters he and Luana exchanged as young newlyweds during his World War II deployment. Bernard had been a Tuskegee Airman, one of the first 15 pilots in the pioneering all-African American flying squadron based in Tuskegee, Ala.

He was 23 and his letters reveal a cocky pilot smitten with his bride. Luana, 21, was bright and educated, a stenotypist from St. Louis discovering a foreign way of life in the Deep South.

"This Tuskegee is the dirtiest place in the country," she wrote to her mother. "You have taught me that everything in the world was nice and clean... and it really hurts to find out that life isn't really like that."

For his part, Bernard worked to keep his letters light.

"My bed is quite uncomfortable and I can't sleep, thus I dream of you all night long," he wrote to Luana. "I miss the sleep but thinking of you is better than whiskey or vitamin pills. Hmmmm, I'd better change that to just vitamin pills."

Russell compiled the letters into "Tuskegee Love Letters," a book written in the format of a readers theater play.

After Bernard died in 2000, she discovered another surprise he'd left her: hundreds more letters saved from his 13-year marriage. It was the best inheritance she could ever have hoped for, Russell says.

"Growing up, I had a wonderful, loving family, but I felt different, like an orphan or an adopted child, because I never knew my mother," she says. "When you lose a parent at an early age, what does that make you?

"I know my mother now and I absolutely adore her. I see so much of me in her."

About Kim Russell

Kim Russell is an arts administrator, writer, and performance artist best known for her one-woman show, "Sojourner Truth." She's working on a book incorporating many more of the letters she inherited.

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