In 1939, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was 10 years old, there was a group of men who, in their own way, were already fighting for civil rights in the US, trying to become ready to fight for America’s and the world’s survival. Those men became the Tuskegee Airmen.
During World War II, the US Army Air Corps was racially segregated. African- Americans in many US states were subject to the Jim Crow laws. The Tuskegee Airmen, despite their desire to fight for their country, were subjected to racial discrimination both outside and inside the Army.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States armed forces.
Walking around Moton Field, at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, and in Hangar #1, visitors are transported back in time to the 1940’s, and segregated America. In the hangar, parachutes hang from the ceiling as they did then, and a restored Stearman (Boeing) Model 75 Kaydet trainer begins to tell the cadet’s story.
Prior to the Tuskegee Airmen, all members of the US Army Air Corps were white. (The US Air Force didn’t exist as a separate branch of the US military until after World War II.) The idea that blacks were inherently inferior to whites was a widely held belief in parts of the US, particularly the South, where most facets of life were racially segregated. A 1925 Army War College study of black troops in World War I concluded “Negroes” were mentally inferior and “barely fit for combat,” and many in the Army Air Corps, in 1939, agreed.
That year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to attack the US military’s segregationist policies. Via newspapers and civic groups they began a public campaign to integrate the armed forces.
The Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) Act was passed in 1939, authorizing selected schools, including the Tuskegee Institute, an all-black university at the time, to provide basic training for black pilots in case of a national emergency.
Despite the NAACP’s efforts, at the outbreak of World War II there was no integration of the Army Air Corps. Rather than integrate, the Corps began the “Tuskegee Experiment.” They chose Tuskegee Institute to train Negro pilots for the war, segregated from white cadets who trained at “whites only” bases. Many white Army officers expected the Negro cadets to fail.
In the center of the hangar is a restored link trainer, and you begin to understand that the training here was every bit as hard as any Air Corps pilot training anywhere.
Basic pilot training took place at Moton Field, which looks much the same today as it did in 1942, when it was completed. It was built with private funds provided by the Rosenwald Fund. The Army Air Corps assigned officers to oversee the pilot training and provided the cadets with textbooks, clothes, parachutes, planes and mechanic suits. Tuskegee Institute, the civilian contractor, provided facilities for the aircraft and personnel, including quarters, a cadet mess, hangars, maintenance shops, flight instructors, ground school instructors, mechanics, and offices for Air Corps personnel.
Unlike white cadets, Negro cadets in the “Tuskegee Experiment” were trained in the ultimate public-private enterprise.
The interior of the hangar and the attached offices are simple and bare, typical military for the time. In the offices stand the desks and file cabinets of the era. In the classroom are the silhouette drawings of enemy planes and the models of enemy ships for the cadets to memorize so they can quickly recognize who’s who in the skies, seas, and on land.
The first Tuskegee class included Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a West Point graduate, shunned the entire time there, who served as Commandant of Cadets. Davis eventually became the first African-American to achieve the rank of Major General. Twelve cadets served with him. Two white officers oversaw their training. Five cadets completed the rigorous training in that first class at Tuskegee. Subjects included: meteorology, navigation, and instruments. After the cadets passed primary flight training at Moton Field, they transferred to Tuskeege Army Air Field, another all-Negro base, to complete their training.
Tuskegee Institute trained almost 1,000 black aviators for the war effort.
A walk down the main drag of Moton reveals the simple snack bar where the cadets spent some of their precious and short free time.
Nearby is Hangar #2 soon to be opened to the public, and the control tower, plus a few more buildings which still remain, such as the “All Ranks Club.”
During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen — the Red Tails, as they were called by the other pilots, because of the red painted tails on their planes — were among the most decorated fliers in the Army Air Corps.
Of the 355 Tuskegee Airmen deployed in Europe, 84 (24 percent) lost their lives. They flew 1578 combat missions, including 179 bomber escort missions. They had the best record of not losing bombers in the Air Corps. They received three Distinguished Unit Citations and were awarded a Silver Star, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 14 Bronze Stars.
They succeeded despite so many believing they were inferior and suffered severe discrimination every step of the way. Their perseverance and bravery are truly inspirational to me. Being at Tuskegee, at Moton, to see where their story in the military began, to walk in their footsteps for a moment, to taste what it must have been like, was a worthwhile experience.