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Tuskegee Airmen of World War II

During WWII there were many men that were forgotten. The Tuskegee Airmen made a major contribution. Where did they come from? Jakeman’s book, “The Divided Skies” recollects where the Tuskegee Airmen came from. It is he who goes in depth about the Tuskegee Institute and its formation, which ultimately gives birth to the Tuskegee Airmen. After their superb flight training, there were a select few that made a major impact in the war through their excellent piloting skills. These men are known today as the Tuskegee Airmen.

March 1942 – Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama

5 men received the silver wings of Army Air Forces polots: George S. Roberts, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., Charles H. BeBow, Jr., Mac Ross, and Lemuel R. Curtis

these men completed standard Army flight classroom instruction

these men completed many hours of flying time

marked milestone in US military Aviation

first African-Americans to qualify as military pilots in any branch of the armed forces

Before these five men entered the program, blacks were continuously excluded from aviation training programs in the military

By the end of WWII, almost 1,000 African-Americans had won their wings at Tuskegee Army AirField. Not until 1948 did the first Black American received the gold wings of a Navy pilot

As you can see, racial exclusion in the Navy continued on many years after the first black men graduated from Tuskegee

Approximately half of the black men that graduated from Tuskegee fought in the European and Mediterranean wars as combat mission fighter pilots

The Tuskegee Airmen have a respectable record in combat:

they flew more than 15,000 sorties

destroyed over 1,000 German aircraft

received hundreds of Air Medals

more then 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses

Why Tuskegee?

1939 – The establishment of an aviation course at Tuskegee

The aviation course was a direct result of blacks crusade to be included into the nation’s military

component to crusade was admitting blacks into Air Corps

Ulysses Lee characterizes wide spread pressure campaign

The Air Corps drew its strength from three important sources

black America’s high regard for military service

increase in enthusiasm for black public in aviation

the emergence of civil rights as a national issue during the 1930’s

The early months of 1939

US Congress enacted legislation to expand the Air Corps and train thousands in flying

There were amendments to Public Law 18, which allowed the Air Corps to be expanded

The 1940 campaign put a lot of pressure on the military

late 1940 military began to make plans for a segregated air unit

early 1941 the secretary of war approves plan to establish 99th Pursuit Squadron and base it near Tuskegee

A Brief Overview of Aviation and Tuskegee Institute

[Detail from The Lincoln Gates at Tuskegee c1906, from the Library of Congress]

Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881, continues today as Tuskegee University

commemorated since 1974 by a National Historic Site in Alabama

May 22, 1934 – the first airplane lands on the ground in an oat field

flown by John C. Robinson, Chicago aviator

occurred during the commencement exercises of 1934

many black newspapers noticed the event

marked Tuskegee’s first attempt to enter the air age

Next two years, Tuskegee has growing interest in aeronautics

1936 – newspapers announce that Tuskegee planned to offer courses in aviation

Tuskegee was considered and ideal place for aviation training for many reasons:

situated in deep south afforded excellent year-round flying weather

rural setting afforded ample underdeveloped land for an airfield

aviation would complement school’s traditional emphasis on task-oriented vocational education

credibility of school would make it easier to enter into a field that many whites felt blacks could not master

Booker T. Washington, graduate of Hampton Institute arrived at Tuskegee to organize a normal school for the training of black teachers in 1881 (photo at right from My Larger Education, 1911)

this aviation idea was only a “fantastic dream in 1881 to Booker T. Washington…” according to Robert Jakeman in The Divided Skies

In early 1881 Tuskegee was chartered by act of the Alabama legislature. Three trustees had the responsibility to of selecting a principal

trustees wrote Samuel C. Armstrong asking for a good white candidate

Armstrong responded that he did not have a white one, but strongly recommended Booker T. Washington

selected Booker T. Washington as new principal

July 4, 1881 despite limited resources, Washington was able to open the school:

he worked fast to get school on firm financial and educational footing

he added industrial training courses such as carpentry, masonry, black smithing, and housekeeping

he saw Tuskegee as “a veritable cathedral of practical learning and black self-help, a Hampton run entirely of black people” (for more on his doctrine of self-help, see his article “The Case of the Negro” published in the 1899 Atlantic Monthly)

By 1895 Tuskegee is well established

same year Washington makes his famous speech at the Atlanta Exposition and publishes his autobiography Up From Slavery (on-line copy 409k)

After the death of Booker T. Washington in 1915, Robert Russa Motion is selected as principle by trustees (photo at right from My Larger Education, 1911)

served as commandant of cadets at Hampton for 25 years

Had ideologies different than Washington; saw himself as principal first “…occasionally as a race leader, and only rarely as a political boss.”

By 1915 Tuskegee is well established as a vocational school training teachers, tradesmen and farmers, providing courses at the high school level

1920 – Motion introduces college courses although no degrees were conferred

1925 – Motion raises ten million dollars by having a joint campaign fund-raiser with Hampton; this allowed the construction of buildings for a new collegiate division

1927 – collegiate level was organized by Motion

courses such as education, agriculture, and home economics

argues that such changes was needed in order to train future graduates to teach

September 1934 – Motion and administration supports plans for two black aviators to do an air tour (Pan – American)

used plane christened as the Booker T. Washington

this is the first time Tuskegee Institute is linked with a major aviation venture publicly

1935 – Motion retires and Frederick Douglass Patterson becomes Tuskegee’s third president

different very much from former presidents

unlike predecessors who graduated from Hampton, Patterson brought professional and academic credentials

Tuskegee continues on

Spring 1940 – Tuskegee had beginnings of aviation program thanks to Civilian Training Program

“In the 1930s, America was dealing with the Depression, legal segregation and blatant racism. These issues made it difficult for Negro pilots to find jobs. But in 1939, about 20 Negro pilots came together and formed the National Airmen’s Association. They hoped to change the policies that limited their options as pilots by gaining public attention. They began holding air shows that amazed the crowds with their daredevil tricks. In May of 1939 the National Airmen’s Association, with the help of the Chicago Defender, a Negro newspaper, sponsored Chauncey Spencer and Dale White on a 10-city tour. While in Washington, D.C., the pilots met and found an ally in a senator from Missouri, Harry S Truman. Along with other congressmen, Truman helped put through legislation that permitted black pilots to serve in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.”

h. G.L. Washington’s ability to run CTP helps aviation to blossom at Tuskegee

h. expands CTP

h. focuses attention on securing airport

h. spoke with Asa Rountree, Alabama Aviation Commission’s director of airfield development

January 1940 – Routeen visits Tuskegee

April 1940 – proposed airfield site selected

April 3, 1940 – state airport engineer, Draper, advises Washington that airfield can be constructed

two grass landings perpendicular would accommodate 8 airplanes

construction of site would cost $22,900

By early October 1940, ten secondary student’s ground and flight training had been completed

campaign continues to get blacks into Army Air Corps

December 18, 1940 – Air Corps sends plans for training and establishment of the black pursuit squadron at Tuskegee

January 6, 1941 – General Hap Arnold tells the Assistant Secretary of War for Air that blacks could only be trained at Tuskegee

selected because only possible place to start negro training school in shortest amount of time

major facilities already available

no question of air congestion there

would allow school to be started with minimal delay

close enough for control and supervision by Maxwell Field, Commanding General

January 9, 1941 – plan receives formal approval of the Secretary of War

“…The era of the all-white air force had ended, and the day of the segregated air force had arrived.”

Towards end of 1941 flight training begins

Early November 1941 only 10 weeks of training, drew to an end, only six of original thirteen remained in program

The flight training was only one phase of the training of the 99th Squadron

March 1942 – the first black Americans earn the wings of Air Corps pilots graduates form Tuskegee


As you can see, the military was very racist against blacks in the military. How could one be a pilot if there was no place for blacks to train? How could a young African-American fulfill a dream if they did not have the motivations nor the apparatus to do it? The Tuskegee Airmen proved the nation wrong. They showed blacks and whites alike that blacks were as capable as anyone else to fly and fight for their country. Ben O. Davis, Jr. and his colleagues were the spearhead of such thinking. If it wasn’t for the 99th Squadron who knows where blacks would be in the military. Would they be pilots? You and I both know the answer to this question!


1. Divided Skies, The : Establishing Segregated Flight Training at Tuskegee, Alabama, 1934-1942, by Robert J. Jakeman. Tucaloosa : University of Alabama Press, 1992.

2. Tuskegee Airmen, The : the Men Who Changed a Nation, by Charles E. Francis. Boston, MA: Branden Pub. Co., 1988; 3rd ed., rev., up-dated and enlarged, Boston: Branden Pub. Co., 1993.

3. Double V: the Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen, by Lawrence P. Scott, William M. Womack, Sr. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994.

4. Lonely Eagles: the Story of America’s Black Air Force in World War II, by Robert A. Rose. Los Angeles: Tuskegee Airmen, Western Region, 1976.

5. Segregated Skies: All-Black Combat Squadrons of WW II, by Stanley Sander. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

6. Booker T. Washington; the Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901, by Louis R. Harlan. New York, Oxford University Press, 1972.

7. Booker T. Washington : the Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915, by Louis R. Harlan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

8. Booker T. Washington papers the, Louis R. Harlan, editor. Urban, University of Illinois Press 1972-1989.

9. My Larger Education, by Booker T. Washington, New York: Doubleday, 1911.

10. America’s First Black General: Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., 1880-1970, by Marvin E. Fletcher; with a foreword by Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1989.

11. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: an Autobiography. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

12. HAP: the Story of the U.S. Air Force and the Man Who Built It, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, by Thomas M. Coffey. New York: Viking Press, 1982.

13. Blacks in the Army Air Forces during World War II : the Problem of Race Relations, by Alan M. Osur. Washington: Office of Air Force History: U.S. Govt. Print. Off. 1977; and New York : Arno Press, 1980.

14. Employment of Negro Troops, The, by Ulysses Lee. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, and Supt. of Docs. U.S. G.P.O., 1994.

15. Invisible Soldier, The: the Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II, compiled and edited by Mary Penick Motley; with a foreword by Howard Donovan Queen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975.

16. He, too, spoke for Democracy: Judge Haste, World War II, and the Black Soldier, by Phillip McGuire. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

17. Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II, by Lou Potter with William Miles and Nina Rosenblum. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

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