To Military Pioneers
Class 45A, fighter pilot
(single-engine) group graduation class photo,
with P-40 plane in background (courtesy of Sam
By Melissa T. Miller
Though it can be said
that the Tuskegee Airmen are to military aviation what
Jackie Robinson is to major league baseball, it is surprising
that many Americans, both young and old, still have
not heard of them.
Prior to World War II, many in the military believed
that African-Americans would not perform well in combat
and were incapable of flying. A 1925 study conducted
by the Army War College concluded that African-Americans
were inherently ill-suited for combat physically and
psychologically. In 1939, the government began establishing
flight schools at colleges around the nation but refused
to do so at any of the Black colleges. A Howard University
student lodged a lawsuit in protest, and thanks to mounting
pressure from black newspapers, the NAACP, and sympathetic
government leaders, including President Franklin D.
Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, the "Tuskegee Experiment"
was begun. A flight school was founded at the historic
Tuskegee University in Alabama, and On July 19, 1941,
the Army Air Corps initiated the program.
At its inception, twelve cadets
and one officer, Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who
later became the Air Force's first African American
general, were in the program. These and later graduates
became known as "Tuskegee Airmen," and formed the 99th
Pursuit Squadron. The 99th fought with distinction in
the Mediterranean Theater, and later joined three newer
Tuskegee squadrons to form the 332nd Fighter Group.
The 332nd distinguished itself in Italy, flying combat
missions and escorting bombers.
Tuskegee story is an important
civil rights story of Americans
who happen to be black, in service
to their country, their family,
and to their friends -- in that
-- Col. Charles E. McGee, National
President of the Tuskegee Airmen
The "Tuskegee Experiment" was expected to
fail. However, not only was the program a milestone
in training African-Americans as military pilots, but
the Tuskegee Airmen went on to succeed with flying colors.
Tuskegee pilots garnered some of the most envied military
records in history, and more importantly advanced the
American Civil Rights Movement by setting the precedent
that would force the American military to begin to fully
integrate in 1948 -- more than a decade before Martin
Luther King Jr. marched on Washington.
The Tuskegee program also forged a group of men who
would earn advanced degrees and make notable achievements
in the fields of law, social policy, politics, medicine,
education, and finance. Surprisingly, aviation was not
on this list, as private aviation industries were closed
at the time to African-Americans.
That the 926 servicemembers who graduated from Tuskegee
succeeded at a time when racist attitudes were officially
sanctioned in the military is a testament to the men's
extraordinary determination to succeed as pilots, which
by its nature is one of the most academically and psychologically
challenging areas of military service.
Next Page: The
Program at Tuskegee
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