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The Tuskegee Airmen

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is a compelling chapter in the history of World War II. Their exploits have been dramatized in an HBO movie. Feature articles often appear in newspapers and magazines recounting their war record, their patriotism, and their courage in the face of a nation skeptical that they had the "right stuff" to fly against the German and Japanese air forces. The Tuskegee Airmen are even represented in the G.I. Joe action figure series. During World War II the existence of segregated flying units was tolerated (at best) by the senior leadership of the Army Air Forces (AAF). But Air Force leaders of the 1990s point to the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen with pride. Tuskegee Airmen are frequently invited to speak at leadership schools at Maxwell Air Force Base, so most members of today's Air Force know that African Americans fought in the air over Europe during World War II.

Because of this recent and well-deserved acclaim surrounding the Tuskegee Airmen, many students will no doubt have some familiarity with the term. They may not, however, fully understand the difficulties the men faced, the issues surrounding the decision to create segregated flying units, and how the combat flying of the Tuskegee Airmen fit into the overall scheme of the war in Europe. Nevertheless, the popularity of the Tuskegee Airmen offers an exciting opportunity to use an episode in Alabama history to teach students important lessons about the social and military history of World War II.

Students should understand that the Tuskegee Airmen were not the first African Americans involved in aviation. Charles Wesley Peters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, reportedly had constructed and flew an airplane by 1911. During World War I Eugene Bullard, an African American from Columbus, Georgia, flew fighters with the French and was credited with the destruction of a German aircraft. During the 1920s and 1930s a number of African Americans learned to fly, including Bessie Coleman, Herman Banning, Thomas Alexander, William Powell, Cornelius Coffey, Albert Forsythe, and Alfred Anderson. In the mid-1930s black flyer John Robinson, a Tuskegee graduate who settled in Chicago, served as a pilot for Ethiopia after the Italians invaded that African nation. Nevertheless, few white Americans knew of the exploits of these black pilots. Instead they believed that flying was the special domain of the white race. Charles Lindbergh, writing in Readers' Digest, called aviation a "tool specially shaped for Western hands; . . . one of those priceless possessions which permit the White race to live at all in a pressing sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown." Another aviation writer of the 1930s declared firmly "Negroes cannot fly."

These racial stereotypes were a tremendous obstacle to young black men who wanted to fly, but some managed to find a way into the air. Unfortunately, none were able to find their way into the Air Corps until the establishment of the 99th Pursuit Squadron in 1941. Whenever qualified blacks, such as Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (a 1936 graduate of West Point), applied for duty in the Air Corps, they were told that the Air Corps had no segregated units and therefore did not accept blacks into its ranks.

In 1939 the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), a new flight training initiative sponsored by the federal government, gave many African American college students a chance to earn their private pilot license. Several black colleges, including Tuskegee Institute, participated in the program. But learning to fly in the CPTP was not the same as becoming a pilot in the Air Corps.

The Air Corps finally agreed to admit blacks because of a powerful pressure campaign led by the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential black newspaper. The Courier and other black newspapers in the North pointed out that African Americans had fought bravely in all the nation's wars on both land and sea and therefore deserved a chance to prove themselves in the air. They emphasized that blacks had learned to fly even though racial prejudice presented tremendous obstacles. They also argued that African American men were subject to the draft but could not volunteer to serve in the Air Corps, an option open to white men of draft age. As a result of this pressure campaign, President Roosevelt (who was seeking an unprecedented third term in 1940) directed the Air Corps to admit blacks in segregated units.

The plan for admitting blacks developed by the Air Corps called for the construction of a new military air field near Tuskegee, to be devoted exclusively to training African Americans to become Air Corps pilots. As was the practice at the time, the first of three phases of training would be conducted by a civilian contractor, and Tuskegee Institute was awarded that contract. This first phase of training took place at Moton Field, still an active civilian flying field. The second and third phases of training would be conducted by military pilots at Tuskegee Army Air Field (this field was demolished after World War II and the land is now in private hands). The first class of thirteen black aviation cadets began their training in July 1941 and five graduated in March 1942.

Many African Americans, such as Tuskegee president Frederick D. Patterson, were pleased with the decision to establish segregated flying units. Although they disliked the idea of segregation in principle, they believed that admitting blacks on a segregated basis was an important first step towards the ultimate integration of the armed forces. But other African Americans, such as Walter White (head of the NAACP), believed that it was a mistake to extend the Army's policy of segregated units to the Air Corps. The African American aviation community was also divided on the issue. Cornelius Coffey, head of the largest African American aviation organization at the time, came out strongly against the Tuskegee plan.

Nevertheless, the plan to establish a segregated flying unit was implemented. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war, the number and size of the segregated units was expanded. African American fighter pilots served in the Mediterranean and European theaters and compiled a respectable combat record. By 1944 a segregated bomber group was in training for combat in the Pacific, but it was plagued by racial tensions and training delays until the white commander was replaced with Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., by then a seasoned combat veteran. Under Davis's firm leadership the group's morale improved as they accelerated their training for combat duty. But the war ended before they could be shipped overseas to fight.

After the war the size of the armed forces was drastically reduced and many of the Tuskegee Airmen returned to civilian life. But the war did not bring an end to the policy of segregation, and the Tuskegee Airmen who remained in uniform continued to serve in all-black flying units. Tuskegee Army Air Field was closed in 1946 and all the segregated flying units were concentrated at Lockbourne Air Base in Ohio. When the Air Force became an independent service in 1947 some officers began to argue that segregated units were a waste of manpower. For example, the segregated units had too many navigators, but these men could not be reassigned where they were needed without violating the policy of segregation. Although some officers argued that African American personnel should be reassigned to units that needed their skills, other officers resisted the idea of integration. But after President Truman's 1948 order to desegregate the armed forces, the officers who advocated integration prevailed, and the Air Force moved quickly toward full integration. In the end, the Air Force did not support Truman's desegregation order because of abstract notions of civil rights and equal opportunity; instead the key factor was efficient use of trained personnel.

Desegregation brought new opportunities for the Tuskegee Airmen. The Air Force recognized the leadership skills of B. O. Davis Jr., and he advanced rapidly in rank and retired in 1970 as a three-star general. The 1970s witnessed the rise of another Tuskegee Airman, Daniel "Chappie" James. A graduate of Tuskegee Institute, James became the first African American to reach the rank of four-star general.

Thus the Tuskegee Airmen played an important role in shaping racial policy in the armed forces during and after World War II. Because of their connection to Alabama, students in the state should find their story interesting and instructive.