by Gabriel J. Christian, Esq.
At one of our last East Coast Chapter Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (ECCTAI) meetings of 2012, the idea of a Christmas party to honor those who served in that famed unit in World War II was raised by Dennis McDuffie. Time seemed short, was the opinion of our President, Trent Dudley (Lt. Col., USAF, ret.). It was in that moment, that ECCTAI Board of Directors member Diane Mohr, sidled up to me and whispered, “Gabe, let us salute the Tuskegee Airmen at the President’s Second Inauguration. It is also Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and January 2013 is the 150th Anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. There will never be another opportunity for such a convergence of events.” Daughter of a Tuskegee Airman and a historian in her own right, she was bang on target. The stars seemed aligned. We needed no further convincing.
In seeking to immortalize the example of those men and women (women served as nurses and administrative staff for the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II) for generations yet unborn, one must first pay close attention to the mental conditioning that allowed those heroes to shrug off the insults of second-class citizenship and forge ahead amidst the tempest. African Americans are a deeply spiritual people; possessed of an indomitable faith from which hope springs eternal. What else accounts for the resilience of the African American church, but that faith? Many a prayer was offered for the success of the Tuskegee pilot training program for those who sought to ensure our freedom against Adolph Hitler’s fascist tide, which brought racial cleansing of “subhuman races” in its wake. It was such an unconquerable thirst for freedom, borne on the wings of faith in the belief that “we shall overcome” that birthed the Tuskegee Airmen. A brief recounting of African Americans in aviation is necessary here.
Jean Jacques Bullard was the first African American military flyer known to history. Denied by an opportunity to serve his own country, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion during World War I, was wounded in infantry combat and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Upon recuperation he learnt to fly, and became a flyer in the Lafayette Flying Corps under the French Aeronautique Militaire. He flew twenty missions and shot down two German aircraft in that war. The postwar period saw the rise of famed female aviatrix Bessie Coleman and the legendary Hubert Fauntleroy Julian (of Grenada) the so-called Black Eagle. With the epic flight of Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic on May 20–21, 1927, it was the dream of many an American youngster to take to the air. A young Benjamin Davis, future leader of the famed Tuskegee Airmen 99th Pursuit Squadron, recalls the thrill of soaring through the DC skies when his father paid a barnstorming pilot to take his son up for a spin during an air show at Bolling Field. In the 1930s African Americans started flight clubs, and William J. Powell — a World War I US Army veteran — graduated as a pilot and aeronautical engineer. He went on to build his own planes in what was the first black-owned aircraft factory. While that factory went bankrupt during the Great Depression, his work spurred others to stick with it.
However, racial discrimination prevented blacks from joining the US Army Air Corps. Such racial prejudice was only overcome by the staunch advocacy of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) led by Walter White, and Civil Rights leaders, such as A. Phillip Randolph of the Pullman Car Porters Union and Judge William H. Hastie, who fought relentlessly against the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws. Their efforts persuaded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration to relent. On April 3, 1939 Appropriations Bill Public Law 18, designated funds to train African American pilots. By March 19 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated at Chanute Field, in Rantoul, IL. The Tuskegee program itself was formally launched in June 1941, with training at Moton Field, AL adjacent to the Tuskegee Institute. which had been founded by Booker T. Washington. The Airmen were placed under the command of Captain Benjamin O. Davis, only the fourth black graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point up until that time. When war came with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, African Americans rallied to the defense of their country.
We all know that, despite the U.S. War Department’s misgivings about their ability to fly, the Tuskegee Airmen finally saw combat in the skies over Europe. During their war service in World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen covered themselves in glory. In all, 992 pilots trained in Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946. Of the 450 were deployed overseas, 150 lost their lives in accidents or combat. They received three Distinguished Unit Citations, one Silver Star, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air medals and 8 Purple Hearts. The unit destroyed 112 enemy aircraft in air combat and 150 on the ground. In addition the unit sunk a Nazi destroyer, and 40 assorted enemy boats and barges, as well as destroying 950 rail cars and trucks. The success of the Tuskegee Airmen added impetus to the move to desegregate the US Armed Forces. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the military.
Overcoming adversity in pursuit of freedom is an integral part of the American story. What glory resides in that quest for a more perfect union can be seen in President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which played only a partial role in abolishing slavery in the Confederate states then in rebellion. However, the Emancipation Proclamation formed the basis for the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in stating that:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Unfortunately, due to the post Civil War rise of Jim Crow, it took another century — and the work of the Tuskegee Airmen, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement — to make real the promise of the spirit of 1776 that “All men are created equal.”
Such is the genesis of American Glory! It is a story of African Americans, allied in noble cause with other progressive Americans of all colors, who worked to build a democracy. That coalition of the conscious led to President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012.
Our challenge now is to increase the number of women and minorities in aerospace sciences. In times to come, competence in mathematics and the sciences will be critical to our very survival as a species. Where are the aviation or aerospace science clubs in our local schools? We must form them. Are African Americans partnering with African countries to promote aircraft manufacturing or aerospace sciences? The Tuskegee Airmen were studious, honed their skills to compete against all comers, and performed as one coherent team. So too, must we all. We must advise our young, that it is time to set aside smart phones and video game consoles where those items are not tools with which to foster our rise, but mere distractions or impediments to our forward march. We must master the sciences, alongside relationship, leadership and team building, in the spirit of those heroes we celebrate today. In so doing, we enhance our competitive edge. It must be our mission then to complete the unfinished tasks of the Tuskegee Airmen by promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in our schools, without which we cannot build a dynamic, innovative, entrepreneurial and competitive 21st Century economy.
Our obstacle today is not so much racially restrictive covenants as it is a reluctance to foster new alliances, seize the many opportunities at hand, and emulate the exemplary conduct of those who laid the foundation for our current accomplishments. May we, each of us, commit to joining a Tuskegee Airmen chapter, mentoring at a neighborhood school, or promoting the pursuit of science education by our youth — in particular computer and aerospace sciences. The East Coast Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen has a Youth in Aviation Program (YIAP) that can benefit from boosters, tutors, and sponsors. We welcome all to join with us and make a contribution to nation building. In so doing, we shall grant greater meaning to those few we honor during this American Glory Salute during President Obama’s Second Inauguration. Though frail in body, the Tuskegee Airmen are forever brave of heart. They are the last of that contingent that reported for duty when war came. We may never see the likes of them again. It is therefore right and proper that we salute them for having braced themselves to their duties, at Mankind’s darkest hour. May we always remember them, as we commit ourselves to taking action in conformity with that glorious heritage.
Gabriel J. Christian, Esq., is the Historian of the East Coast Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., and newly elected Parliamentarian (2012). A Maryland trial lawyer, he is also the co-author with Dr. Irving W. Andre of For King & Country: The Service of the British West Indian Military (Pont Casse Press, 2009).