One of the great and tragic ironies of World War II was that while America claimed to be a champion to oppressed peoples under Axis rule, it oppressed a significant percentage of its own population, African-Americans. As a result of the 1896 Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld “separate but equal” accommodations, Southern states passed a series of discriminatory statutes known as Jim Crow laws aimed at the African-American population. Though racial bias was most pronounced in the South, it was not limited to that region. African-Americans confronted many discriminatory hurdles in the military, one of the biggest being doubts that they possessed the intelligence and ability to be combat pilots.
“[The Negro] cannot control himself in fear of danger. . . . He is a rank coward in the dark.”
— Maj. Gen. H. E. Ely, Commandant, U.S. Army War College; “The Use of Negro Manpower in War,” October 1925
The foundation of the Army’s policy of discrimination was a classified 1925 Army War College report titled “The Use of Negro Manpower in War,” a multi-year study conducted by the all-white faculty and student body of the Army War College.
Ignoring accounts of such units as the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War, the 10th Cavalry (the “Buffalo Soldiers”) of the Indian Wars, and the highly decorated 369th Regiment (the “Harlem Hellfighters”) of World War I, that proved the courage and ability of blacks in combat, the study concluded that the intelligence of African-Americans “was lower than that of whites” and that they lacked courage, were superstitious, and were dominated by moral and character weaknesses.
For years this, and other, studies were used as justification in relegating African-Americans to labor units and preventing them from becoming pilots in the Army Air Corps, even though by 1940 more than 100 African-Americans had their civilian pilot’s license.
The rapid expansion of America’s armed forces and defense industry coupled with calls from civil rights organizations and advocates increased pressure on the military to, if not end discrimination, at least expand opportunities for African-Americans who wished to enlist.
But the rapid expansion of America’s armed forces and defense industry coupled with calls from civil rights organizations and advocates increased pressure on the military to, if not end discrimination, at least expand opportunities for African-Americans who wished to enlist.
One of the most effective advocates was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In early 1941, she went to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, ostensibly to visit the polio unit there. In an attempt to blunt criticism, the War Department had recently provided funding, materials, and personnel for a Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program for non-whites; a bureaucratic piece of legerdemain as the Army Air Corps continued to stonewall attempts by African-Americans to become military pilots.
The most famous African-American pilot in the CPT program was its head, Charles “Chief” Anderson. During her visit, Eleanor went to the air field where the CPT did its training. Anderson later said, “I remember her telling me that everybody told her [blacks] couldn’t fly. Her remark was, ‘I see you are flying all right here. Everybody that’s here is flying. You must be able to fly. As a matter of fact, I’m going to find out for sure. I’m going up with you.'”
‘I see you are flying all right here. Everybody that’s here is flying. You must be able to fly. As a matter of fact, I’m going to find out for sure. I’m going up with you.’”
The first lady’s decision horrified her escorts. Some threatened to call the president and have him stop her. But Roosevelt had a well-established reputation of getting her way once her mind was made up. With Chief Anderson at the controls, she took an aerial tour of the facility and surrounding area. After they had landed, she told Anderson, “Well, you can fly all right.”
On July 19, 1941, the Tuskegee Army Air Field, or TAAF, was dedicated and the program called the “Tuskegee Experiment” officially began. Its first class included Capt. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the son of Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the country’s first African-American general officer. Davis, Jr., would go on to command the 99th Fighter Squadron and later, as colonel, the 332nd Fighter Group – the Red Tails. He carved out a successful career in the Air Force, eventually reaching the rank of full general.
Though controversial among the African-American community, with some charging that its all African-American composition helped support segregation, the Tuskegee Experiment was a success.
Though controversial among the African-American community, with some charging that its all African-American composition helped support segregation, the Tuskegee Experiment was a success. From 1941-1949, the TAAF totaled 928 African-American graduates. Those pilots received numerous decorations, including the Distinguished Unit Citation (now the Presidential Unit Citation), Legion of Merit, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Croix de Guerre.