The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), a precursor of the U.S. Air Force. Trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, they flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Their impressive performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and helped encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.
During the 1920s and ‘30s, the exploits of record-setting pilots like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart had captivated the nation, and thousands of young men and women clamored to follow in their footsteps. But young African Americans who aspired to become pilots met with significant obstacles, starting with the widespread (racist) belief that black people could not learn to fly or operate sophisticated aircraft.
In 1938, with Europe teetering on the brink of another great war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced he would expand the civilian pilot training program in the United States. At the time, racial segregation remained the rule in the U.S. armed forces—as well as much of the country. Much of the military establishment (particularly in the South) believed black soldiers were inferior to whites, and performed relatively poorly in combat.
But as the AAC began ramping up its training program, black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier joined civil rights groups like the NAACP in arguing that black Americans be included. In September 1940, Roosevelt’s White House responded to such lobbying campaigns by announcing that the AAC would soon begin training black pilots.
For the training site, the War Department chose the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, then under construction. Home to the prestigious Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington, it was located in the heart of the Jim Crow South. The program’s trainees, nearly all of them college graduates or undergraduates, came from all over the country. In addition to some 1,000 pilots, the Tuskegee program trained nearly 14,000 navigators, bombardiers, instructors, aircraft and engine mechanics, control tower operators and other maintenance and support staff. Continue reading from The History Channel