Combating Racism – The Tuskegee Airmen

When I went to my gym to work out on Friday morning, the man at the check-in desk, Charles, was wearing the above t-shirt.

As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I was fascinated by it. What I learned peaked my interest. Charles’ grandfather, Charles DeBow, was one of thirteen Black cadets to start the Army Air Corps pilot training program in 1941. After ground school training, he was transferred to the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) to complete the program. In March 1942, he was one of only five men to complete the program and earn his silver wings, becoming one of the nation’s first Black military pilots. Charles showed me this picture of his grandfather.

I was so moved by his story, I decided to do some research of my own.

And I found this picture of the five men.

Members of the first graduating class. Left to right: Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., second lieutenants Lemuel R. Custis, George Spencer Roberts, Charles H. DeBow, Mac Ross

The Beginning of the Tuskegee Airmen

Black men had served in the military before WWII but had not been allowed to become pilots. Desperately needing pilots at the beginning of World War II, the U.S. government sponsored the Civilian Pilot Training Program. The goal was to turn 20,000 college students into pilots, but Black men were not considered.

Even though Black men had served as pilots for France in WWI, the pervasive thought at that time was that these men were incapable of handling bombers or fighter planes. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), churches, and newspaper articles all pressured the government to accept all men into the military in whatever role they were qualified to perform. This pressure led to a separate flight school program in Tuskegee, Alabama for Black men interested in becoming pilots.

While the government did succumb to pressure, allowing the men to go through the training, most people considered the program an "experiment" because of little confidence that Blacks could succeed as military aviators. The men were expected to fail. At that time, few considered Black men intelligent or capable enough to become pilots.

Unfortunately, these views were held by a majority of military leaders who cited a biased 1925 U.S. Army War College study that stated, “Blacks are mentally inferior, by nature subservient and cowards in the face of danger. They are unfit for combat.” The Tuskegee Airmen proved them wrong.

The Tuskegee Airmen in World War II

The Tuskegee Airmen formed the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group in July 1944. This fighter group earned a name for themselves by supporting U.S. ground troops, attacking enemy installations, successfully engaging the enemy in air combat, and providing bomber escort missions for the Fifteenth Air Forces. Their job was to protect American bombers from enemy aircraft. They escorted heavy bombers through most of Europe, staying so close to American bombers that enemies were reluctant to come in and attack U.S. bombers for fear of being destroyed by the Red Tail Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airmen.

Before these escorts, the U.S. was losing twelve bombers a day. The Tuskegee Airmen are credited with cutting these losses drastically, only losing bombers on five of the 205 escort missions. Some say the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber, but that myth began because no other escort group could claim such low losses. Their record has never been broken or nor was it achieved by any other escort group throughout WWII, and it destroyed the myth of the incompetence of Black airmen.

The Tuskegee Airmen proved they were as good as any other group of pilots during World War II. They flew more than 1,800 missions. They shot down 112 enemy airplanes.

After the War

When they came home, the Black airmen faced discrimination. The 1.2 million Black soldiers returning from the war found the same socioeconomic ills and racist violence that they faced before the war. Despite their sacrifices overseas, and despite having fought to have a better life, they still struggled to get hired for well-paying jobs, encountered segregation, and endured targeted brutality, especially while wearing their military uniforms. Returning home, they had to fight another battle—the one for equality. Black veterans realized that being treated as equals was still a matter society hadn’t resolved.

“At the heart of it was a kind of nervousness and fear that many Whites had that returning Black veterans would upset the racial status quo,” said Charissa Threat, a history professor at Chapman University. “They saw images of Black soldiers coming from abroad where Black soldiers were intermingling with Whites and had a lot more freedom.”

To quell any expectation of social equality held by African-American servicemen, mobs of Whites engaged in unspeakable violence toward them. In February 1946, Isaac Woodard, a Black veteran who served in the Pacific theater, got into an argument with a bus driver while traveling from Georgia to South Carolina. Woodard, in his uniform, was ordered off the bus in a town now known as Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, and beaten so badly with a billy club by the local police chief that he was permanently blinded.

In August of the same year, John C. Jones, a Black veteran, was lynched in Minden, La., after he was accused of looking at a young White woman through a window of her family’s house. Two other Black veterans, Richard Gordon and Alonza Brooks, were murdered in Marshall, Texas, after a labor dispute with their employers. The violence became so pervasive and brutal that civil rights activists formed the National Emergency Committee Against Mob Violence in 1946.

Hope came in the form of the G.I. Bill of Rights, a substantial piece of social legislation that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law in 1944 to avert mass unemployment among returning veterans and a postwar depression. Promoted as race-neutral, the G.I. Bill offered veterans unemployment insurance, tuition assistance, job placement, and guaranteed loans for homes, farms or businesses.

After the war, however, the bill failed to propel Black servicemen into the middle class in the numbers it did for White veterans. Discrimination toward Black Americans found its way through loopholes in the legislation.

“So much of the G.I. Bill involved deference to state and local authorities,” said Steven White, a political-science professor at Syracuse University and the author of World War II and American Racial Politics: Public Opinion, the Presidency and Civil Rights Advocacy. “Black southerners, even if they got benefits, couldn’t go to the same colleges and universities. They couldn’t get the same jobs.”

Despite coming out of the military fully trained as mechanics, carpenters, welders or electricians, Black veterans encountered White job counselors at local employment offices who refused to refer them for skilled and semiskilled jobs.

Representative John Rankin, an openly racist Mississippi Democrat who helped draft the G.I. Bill, made sure states controlled the distribution of veteran benefits. In October 1946, for example, out of the 6,583 nonagricultural jobs filled in Mississippi by G.I. Bill job counselors, 86 percent of the professional, skilled and semiskilled positions went to Whites, while 92 percent of the unskilled and service-sector jobs went to Blacks.

Many Black veterans were denied access to a college education, largely relegated to vocational programs. According to the journalist and historian Edward Humes, 28 percent of White veterans went to college on the G.I. Bill, compared with 12 percent of Black veterans.

Blacks were routinely denied mortgages, and Black veterans were no exception. During the summer of 1947, Ebony magazine surveyed 13 cities in Mississippi and discovered that of the 3,229 V.A. home loans given to veterans, two went to Blacks.

Civil rights groups, frustrated by the lack of progress, continued to press Truman on legislation for racial equality. Knowing that civil rights legislation would stall in Congress, and with the reputation of the United States as a great democratic nation being questioned as racism continued to flourish during a nascent Cold War, on July 26, 1948, Truman signed two Executive Orders, 9980 and 9981, ending segregation in the federal work force and in the military, and setting the stage for equal treatment regardless of race. It took two years for the order to go into full effect and segregation to be completely banished from the military.

The performance of the Tuskegee Airmen World War II contributed significantly to the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces. These brave men continue to be regarded for opening the doors to opportunities for minorities that would come after them.

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Many Tuskegee Airmen went on to have distinguished military and civilian careers. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, congressmen, authors, Korean and Vietnam war heroes, and many more make up a snapshot of these fine Americans. Three Tuskegee airmen went on to become generals. After the war ended, Charles DeBow, the young lieutenant colonel, married and continued his education and eventually worked as a high school teacher and university professor in Indiana.

In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen received the highest American civilian honor – the Congressional Gold Medal bestowed by the U.S. Congress. It is the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. The Tuskegee Airmen received the medal as a 300-strong collective group, appearing at the U.S. Capitol to be honored by then President George W. Bush. The medal is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.

“I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities. And so, on behalf of the office I hold, and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the United States of America.”

~ George W. Bush, President of the United States

The Tuskegee Airmen fought through ignorance and prejudice to have distinguished military and civilian careers, proving to every skeptic that excellence is not a matter of color or race, but the result of commitment and determination. On the shoulders of these incredible men and women, many more will rise above preconceived notions to inspire those yet to come.

I assume that today many people do not know about the remarkable achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen, as I did not. We never know what acts of heroism and courage lie in the ancestry of today’s Black Americans. All we have to do to find out is begin the conversation with curiosity.

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