The Tuskegee Airmen: Overcoming Racism
In the years before World War II, no African American had ever served as a pilot for the United States Army or any of the United States Armed forces. The men that would later become known as the Tuskegee Airmen changed this forever on July 19, 1941. The President of the United States approved a program to train African Americans to be fighter pilots. The basic training was held at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which is where the Tuskegee Airmen got their name from. This group of African Americans forever changed the way that blacks were viewed in the Armed Forces. These men helped to prove that African Americans are equals and should be treated as such.
In the late 1930’s, many leaders of the African American community demanded that there should be more involvement in the military for black men. In 1939, Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act, which allowed African Americans the opportunity to earn their pilots’ licenses through a civilian program. This program was still segregated, but it did allow African American’s the opportunity to become pilots and serve their country to a greater degree.
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Tuskegee Alabama was chosen for the site, because the Tuskegee Institute was already there, and the climate was deemed as suitable for year-round flying (National Parks Service, n.d.). In July of 1941, Moton Field was officially opened, and the first thirteen candidates arrived in Alabama to begin their training (National Parks Service, n.d.). Of the original thirteen candidates, only five passed- showing just how hard this training was. Four years after its opening, the Tuskegee Institute had trained over one thousand African American pilots for the United States Army Air Corps (History Channel, 2009).
Despite the adversity and the number of opportunities that were provided to African Americans, the Tuskegee Airmen overcame many obstacles and helped to pave the way for African Americans in the military as well as civilians in the United States. At the time that the Tuskegee Airmen program began, the military had “Jim Crow” segregation rules. The men at Tuskegee Air Field faced exclusion on basically every level. They were excluded from holding officer positions, were excluded from certain areas of the base, and even had to tolerate abuse from white police, and frequent conflicts with the white instructors (Cox, 2016).
There were separate barracks, dining halls, and even restrooms for the African Americans that were in the Armed Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen were able to overcome segregation and prejudice to move on to become one of the most highly respected fighter pilot groups of World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were able to prove that African Americans were able to not only fly sophisticated aircraft, but also that they were able to maintain them and keep them ready for combat at any time (National Parks Service, n.d.).
The Tuskegee Airmen paved the way for African Americans to follow. Charles McGee, a pilot who served for the 302nd Fighter Squadron in WWII said, “We dispelled the biases, generalizations, and in some cases, racist ideas that the black population wasn’t physically qualified to serve the country and not morally, mentally or otherwise capable of doing anything technical”. (CITE McGee) The Tuskegee Airmen were so iconic that the United States government used their photographs and images to persuade Americans to purchase war bonds during World War II.
In an interview with a Tuskegee Airmen, Charles Dryden, he spoke about the racism that they were forced to overcome. When he was interviewed, he spoke about the “ridiculous conclusions” that some Air Force leaders had about African Americans in the south in 1941. Dryden stated that people really believed that African Americans could not be taught anything technical and “especially not how to fly an airplane”. They believed that blacks had “severe limitations in all mental, moral, physical and psychological characteristics” (History Channel, 2009).
Mr. Dryden was commissioned as an Army second lieutenant in April of 1942. He was one of three black graduates in his class, which was the second class ever of black pilots in the Army Air Corps. According to the interview with Charles Dryden, black pilots began flying combat missions in 1943. They shot down thirteen aircraft in two days; forever changing people’s attitudes about black pilots.
Unfortunately, even though these men accomplished so much, they still faced issues even when they came home from war. For example, black pilots were banned from the officer’s club on base solely because of the color of their skin. In 1945, one hundred and three black airmen were arrested at the officer’s club at Freeman Field in Indiana simply because they were black and did not want to leave the officer’s club because they believed that they had a right to be there since they were in fact officers. They were all charged with mutiny and disobedience.
This incident was later known as the “Freeman Field Mutiny” and they all received assistance from a young lawyer by the name of Thurgood Marshall, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice of the United States. Instead of the base commander insisting that the officer’s club be integrated- he simply closed the officer’s club. It was not until 1948 that the armed forces would finally integrate- thanks to an executive order signed by President Harry Truman. It is believed that a thesis written by Colonel Noel F. Parrish, a white commander of Tuskegee Air Field that inspired President Truman to sign the executive order.
The Tuskegee Airmen pilots flew in over fifteen hundred combat missions in Europe during World War II. During their tenure, they destroyed approximately one hundred and sixty-two Nazi aircraft- they even sank a destroyer ship by using their machine guns. There has been a lack of records regarding the Tuskegee Airmen. Many of the United States Presidents have tried to right this wrong over the years. For example, in 1998, President Clinton signed a law that created the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site to be funded by the United States government.
The entire goal of this site was to “inspire present and future generations to strive for excellence by understanding and appreciating their historic legacy” (Stars and Stripes, 2018). Although President Clinton had directed this to be a National Historic Site for a long time, it took over a decade for the NPS to collect materials, perform interviews and create the exhibits for the historic site. The site was finally dedicated in 2008, with the remaining Tuskegee Airmen in attendance. President George W. Bush presented the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Metal. This is the highest honor that any civilian can receive. In 2008, President Barack Obama invited all the still living Tuskegee Airmen to attend his inauguration.
The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site is a place to not only commemorate the Tuskegee Airmen for their hard work and dedication to our great nation, but it is a place to memorialize those who sacrificed their lives and gave up everything. The site encourages its visitors to not only celebrate those who were Tuskegee Airmen, but it encourages them to think about the issues that are related to racial discrimination and segregation within the United States military in the 1940s.
It also tells them to really think about the difficulties as well as the perseverance and skills that the African Americans needed for the military. The Tuskegee Airmen Experience clearly illustrates the African American community’s effort to eradicate military racism and their desire to eliminate social racial discrimination altogether (National Parks Service, n.d.). While preparing the Tuskegee Airmen Experience, the National Park Service held interviews with Tuskegee Institute participants to show the larger picture of the Tuskegee Institute- but also to show, just how bad the discrimination against these individuals was.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the true picture of great American patriots. Their actions helped to lead President Truman to integrate the Armed Forces. During a time when African Americans were viewed as unfit to do simple things, like operating heavy machinery; the Tuskegee Airmen proved everyone wrong and would later destroy all racial stereotypes against African Americans (National Parks Service, n.d.). The Tuskegee Airmen reflect the struggle of African Americans to achieve equal rights.