Tuskegee Airmen (1941-1945) are the 993 Black American pilots who served in the air force in the Second World War. They fought against both Nazi Germany and American racism.
Flight record: They lost very few bomber planes, flying bombers to Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany. They were the first fighter pilots ever to sink a destroyer. And when Germany came out with the world’s first jet fighters, the fastest planes ever seen, they shot those down too.
But more important than their flight record was the fact that they even had a flight record. The flight school at Tuskegee was set up not to provide black pilots for the war, like you might think, but to prove that blacks could not fly and become good fighter pilots!
Despite Bessie Coleman, a black female pilot of the early 1920s, and despite there being 125 black pilots on the eve of the war, it was still widely believed that blacks did not have the brains and courage it took to be good pilots. Only white men possessed the right mix of qualities.
A government study proved it: “The Use of Negro Manpower in War” of 1925: blacks were “inferior human beings”, they were not honest or trustworthy, they were more given to crime, they caused trouble and:
In physical courage, it must be admitted that the American Negro falls well back of the white man and possibly behind all races.
So the air force (then the Army Air Corps) would not admit black pilots or mechanics. Blacks fought for that right. The president, wanting the black vote (blacks in the North could vote), promised to open a flight school at Tuskegee to produce air force pilots. It was widely expected to fail.
But it did not fail. And when Tuskegee produced enough pilots for its first squadron no one knew what to do with them. They were kept well behind the front lines – and then when they failed to shoot down many enemy aircraft, that was used as proof that they lacked courage! And when they did shoot down the enemy against orders (something white pilots did all the time), that was proof they lacked discipline!
As was common in American wars, blacks were kept out of direct combat till commanders had little choice. Then all the fighting for rights and all the careful preparation that went into the Tuskegee Airmen could shine.
Segregation: The American military was segregated by race. A black officer, for example, despite his military rank, could not enter a white officers’s club. The excuse was white morale. It was civil disobedience by the Airmen at Freeman Field in Michigan in 1945 that helped to overturn that. Among the protesters:
- Daniel “Chappie” James, who later became the first black four-star general
- Coleman Young, who later became the first black mayor of Detroit
- William Coleman, who later became the first black secretary of transportation
- Tuskegee Experiment – a very different experiment carried out at the same place and at the same time
- Red Tails
- The Liberation of Paris: whites only
- Tirailleurs Senegalais
- How white people think
- Jim Crow racism
- Madison Grant
- Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs – the sort of racist cartoons they were showing back home at the time