Members of the Los Angeles Chapter of The Tuskegee Airmen. Photo by Robert Torrance
The Tuskegee Airmen are trailblazers who led a path through racism and segregation to achieve the American dream.
They had incredible courage during an impossible time. They are the original fighters of the red, white and blue. They were under fire in the air, on land and at home. The Tuskegee Airmen are true super heroes who persevered, and because of their courage, Black men and women can hold their heads proud in today’s military.
“When you turned 18, back in the 1940’s, you were drafted and I was drafted into the Navy. But I told them, ‘No Navy for me.’ I took the air force. Because of racial prejudice, all Blacks were, just about, in the same base. I was fortunate to join the Tuskegee Airmen.”-Buford Johnson, 84 years old, Former Tuskegee Crew Chief and 1st Top Gun Winner
Black participation in military service was menial at best before the 1940’s. This prompted civil rights movements to get involved and advocate for Black inclusion into the military. Thanks to the efforts of activists like Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a Black judge, William Hastie; and union labor leader, A. Philip Randolph; to name a few, along with the Black press and other civil rights organizations, the Tuskegee Airmen were born.
“[My Father] flew those airplanes, he did those dogfights that you’ll see in the movie [Red Tails], he shot down some Germans and he got shot down himself. He said those things really happened.”-Lowell Steward, Jr., President of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. Los Angeles Chapter
Young Black men would come to enlist and be trained at various units by the U.S. Army Air Corps. Many qualified applicants had gone through the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), which the Tuskegee Institute had participated in since 1939. The Psychological Research Unit 1 at Maxwell Army Air Field, Montgomery, Alabama, was one facility used to test potential Black pilots for roles such as bombardier, navigator, and pilot.
“One of the memorable [moments] was when the bombers had to abort, and come back to our base… and discovered that we were Black pilots and support crew. That was the first time that it was an integrated situation in the Air Force.”-Theodore Lumpkin, Jr., Former Tuskegee Intelligence Officer
Along with fighting enemy aircraft, the Tuskegee Airmen also had to fight prejudice and racism. They had to endure racial slurs and mindsets that thought of them as inferior and unworthy. Many of the early test and protocols were manipulated to undermine qualified applicants, to deter them from entering programs. Nevertheless, Black pilots saw themselves behind the controls and in the air.
“At that time, the status, the concept of a Black man who was capable of being educated was very rare. It was good to meet the caliber of people I did meet at Tuskegee. [After Tuskegee], I went and got a degree in aeronautical engineering and became an airplane engineer. [At] the time that I started, there were very few of us.”-Francis Ashford, Tuskegee Aviation Cadet, 87-years-old
“I volunteered at age 17 to be a fighter pilot. At that time in 1944, this country was still segregated. The N-word was daily showered upon my class and individually. Some of the people that were in my class were attacked by civilians because of not sitting in the right seat on the bus. I had made the determination… that I wanted to be a pilot.”-Monte Posey, 84-years old, Tuskegee Aviation Cadet
Because of their dedication and courage, the Tuskegee Airmen were able to overcome racial prejudice to become one of the most respected WWII fighter groups in history. Their bravery led to Executive Order 9981 by President Harry S. Truman, which would abolish racial segregation in the armed forces. Their stand enabled future African Americans the chance to prove themselves in the U.S. Military.
Chapters across the nation pay tribute and recognize their triumphs and spread knowledge to future generations. Many accolades and awards have been awarded in their honor throughout the years, including the approval of Public Law 105-355 by President Clinton in 1998, recognizing Moton Field in Tuskegee Alabama as the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
The Tuskegee Airmen will always be remembered and recognized as pioneers in the civil rights struggle. They navigated a path through racism and flew over it. They helped turn the tide during one of the biggest wars in history. They are not only Black History heroes, but also all-American heroes.