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Black Military History - The Tuskegee Airmen

Class 45A, fighter pilot (single-engine) group graduation class photo, with P-40 plane in background (courtesy of Sam Broadnax)

A Tribute To Military Pioneers

By Melissa T. Miller
Contributing Writer

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.

"The 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 order."

-- Col. Charles E. McGee, National President of the Tuskegee Airmen

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.

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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