THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN STORY
During the period between World War I and World War II, race relations in the United States were very turbulent. Most Whites believed in white supremacy,The Tuskegee Airmen Story covers events beginning with the struggle to establish the opportunity for Black men to train and fight in military aviation, followed by the circumstances surrounding the training and the combat performance of these airmen, and finally the continued struggle after the war for fair treatment and equal opportunities, which led the way to integration in the armed forces.
This document was originally prepared by the East Coast Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. Speakers Editorial Committee after considerable research and analysis. The members of the committee were: James O. Bryson, Chairman, Woodrow W. Crockett, Leo R. Gray, Alan L. Gropman, Elmer D. Jones and Thomas J. Money. A second edition was prepared by the History Committee of the East Coast Chapter Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. to expand the information on the 477th Bombardment Group to detail that unit's historically significant battle for their civil rights in the American Theater of Operation. The History Committee is especially indebted to Mr. Alan L. Gropman for his research and writing of this updated section.
The focal points of this speech guide are three-fold: (I) the Black community's valiant and persistent struggle with the government to create the opportunity for men of color to enter military aviation; (2) the outstanding combat success of the segregated airmen abroad and their civil rights successes at home, and; (3) the indispensable supporting role of highly trained and technically competent training and combat ground service units whose superb performance of their duties contributed greatly to the successful conclusion of the war and were important factors in the initial decision to integrate the American Air Force and subsequently, the entire American military.Introduction
The Tuskegee Airmen Story, often referred to as the "Tuskegee Airmen Experience," was a unique and extremely important development in the history of our country for Black citizens and for the nation as a whole. It was established in 1941 through political and legal maneuvers on the part of America's Black leadership.
Impetus of establishing a flying program for Negroes began at the beginning of World War II as a consequence of discontent resulting from decades of maltreatment as second-class citizens and, specifically, during this time, from the denial of opportunity to serve our country in the military, In jobs other than service or labor work.
In the face of strong resistance from the military establishment and most officials in the War Department, a relentless effort was carried on by a number of Black organizations and individuals, including sympathetic Whites, to persuade the government to accept Blacks for training by the Air Corps in military aviation. After considerable debate on the subject, the government agreed to establish a program in which Negroes would be trained in all aspects of military aviation and sent into combat as a segregated unit.
To appreciate the significance of the "Tuskegee Experience," it needs to be viewed within the context of the national climate in which it was conceived and performed.
America Between the Wars
During the period between World War I and World War II, race relations in the United States were very turbulent. Most Whites believed in white supremacy, and rigid segregation policies were enforced, especially in the south where conditions in some areas had not changed to any substantial degree since slavery. This was a time when bigotry was at its zenith and Blacks were kept "in their place."
However, even in the face of these brutally depressing conditions where mob lynchings were commonplace, and denial of civil rights and a total disregard for common decency so flagrantly displayed towards them by many officials in government and in private industry as well, the Black community persevered. During this era, all the major civil rights organizations pressed for societal changes. The Pittsburgh Courier, the NAACP, the National Urban League, and others were focusing directly on the elimination of discrimination in the national defense systems, primarily on restrictions in the Army and Navy and the exclusion policy of the Air Corps. The Pittsburgh Courier took a leading role in this movement when in February 1938, it launched a crusade to open up all units within the U.S. military to all citizens. Other organizations and numerous individual leaders soon joined in with their support, and in April 1938, a steering committee was formed to consolidate efforts for equality in the military.
Pressure on the government, the military, and on both major political parties increased as the November 1940 presidential election approached. On September 2, at the request of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, her husband, the President, and three officials from the War Department met with representatives of the Black community: Walter White of the NAACP; Arnold Hill of the National Urban League; and A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
A key demand presented at this meeting was for "immediate designation of centers where Negroes may be trained for work in all branches of the aviation corps. It is not enough to train pilots alone, but in addition, navigators, bombardiers, gunners, radiomen, and mechanics must be trained in order to facilitate their full participation in the air service."
In response to this pressure from the Black community, and with a strong desire to sustain the support of its voters for the 1940 elections, President Roosevelt appointed Judge William H. Hastie as the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War on Negro Affairs, promoted Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. to the rank of Brigadier General and appointed Major Campbell C. Johnson as the Executive Assistant to the Director of Selective Service. All of these men were prominent members of the community and the press noted their advancement. Also, he promised to create a Black flying unit and, after the elections, the Army was ordered to implement that promise.
The policies that had been established by the military for the utilization of Negro manpower in menial jobs were based primarily on studies like the one completed in 1925 by the Army War College, which evaluated Blacks in World War I. This memorandum reflected both the racist views of American society and the attitude of military personnel as well. The study stated that the Black man was barely qualified for combat duty; was by nature subservient, mentally inferior and believed himself to be inferior to the White man, was susceptible to the influence of crowd psychology, could not control himself in the face of danger and did not have the initiative, courage and resourcefulness of the White man.
Notwithstanding the attitude of the military and their policies of discrimination, the Black community continued to lobby Congress and the administration for equality in the military. The Pittsburgh Courier had made the Air Corps its special target. On April 3, 1939, the Congress passed Public Law 18, which authorized the Civil Aeronautic Authority to designate a school for the training of Negro Air Pilots. On June 27, 1939, the Civilian Pilot Training Act established the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). Blacks participated in this program at six colleges: West Virginia State College, Howard University, Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute, North Carolina A & T, Delaware State College, and they also participated at two non-college institutions in the Chicago area and at other northern colleges.
Throughout 1939 and 1940, the Army Air Corps refused to alter its stand on accepting Blacks; as a result, in November 1940, Dr. McLean, President of Hampton Institute, convened a two-day conference at the school to discuss their participation in national defense. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and Mrs. Edith Wilkie were among the sponsors of the conference. The conference participants concluded that Blacks had not been accorded equitable participation in any branch of the armed services.
In January 1941, under the direction of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a Howard University student, Yancey Williams, filed suit against the War Department to compel his admission to a pilot training center. Almost immediately following the filing of the suit, the War Department, under pressure from northern congressmen, and with an order from the Commander-in-Chief, announced that it would establish an aviation unit near Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, in cooperation with the Institute, for the training of Negro pilots for the Army. This unit was to be called the 99th Pursuit Squadron.