“13 African-American young men had begun their primary
flight training on July 19, 1941. A historic date to be remembered!”
Charles W. Dryden, Tuskegee Airmen
Prior to World War II, the United States military was segregated like much of the country at the time. African-Americans were also barred from flying in the military as they were thought to be less qualified – lacking skill, courage, and patriotism. In the late 1930’s, in an attempt to change these unjust perceptions and laws, several black aviators – Cornelius Coffey and Willa Brown along with journalist Enoch Waters – established the National Airmen Association of America to increase the number of African-American aviators. In 1939, pilots Dale White and Chauncey Spencer flew from Chicago to Washington, DC to garner support for the inclusion of African-Americans in the Army Air Corps. Upon landing, they met Senator Harry S. Truman, who ensured that black pilots would be accepted into the Civilian Pilot Training Program established in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to train civilian pilots as reserves for the pending war. Consequently, the military chose six black colleges to provide flight instruction to African-American civilians, the most well known being Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. African-Americans who participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program clearly demonstrated their ability to fly. At the same time, there was continued debate whether blacks should be enlisted. In 1940, President Roosevelt intervened and directed the Army to train black pilots and qualified black officers. In 1941, the Army Air Corps program at Tuskegee commenced as the first class of 13 African-American aviation cadets began military flight training on July 19, 1941.
Although African-Americans were now permitted to train to be military fighter pilots, they were segregated with “separate but equal” training facilities. Blacks were not allowed to train with or fight side-by-side white pilots. The training program was rigorous and there was great pressure to succeed. Lieutenant Colonel Noel Parrish, Tuskegee’s base commander from 1942-46, addressed the cadets: “Your future, good or bad, will depend largely on how determined you are not to give satisfaction to those who would like to see you fail.”
And they did not fail. In 1943, nearly one year after the first class of Tuskegee Airmen graduated, the 99th Fighter Squadron was sent into combat. Proven to be well-trained aviators, their role as bomber escorts was deemed invaluable because of their excellent protection of American bomber crews. Throughout World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen received numerous honors for their “outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism.” And because of their resounding record and achievements, the Airmen are credited as the impetus for President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order signed in 1948 that finally ended segregation in the armed forces.