The Black Heritage Museum and Multicultural Center is the only library or museum in the world awarded the Smithsonian Institute’s Black Wings exhibit which features African American Aviators – from early pioneers to the esteemed WWII Red Tails Tuskegee Airmen, and up to the Space Shuttle Program.
Discover…Be Enthralled… Be Proud
The Black Wing Pioneers
Bessie Coleman and Eugene Bullard were the first Black Americans to become licensed pilots. Because racial obstacles (among which was the wide held belief that Black lacked the ability to fly) were so great in the United State, Bessie had to go to France to get her license. Undaunted, Coleman became the first licensed Black pilot in 1922. Tragically, her brief career came to a tragic end in 1926 when she died in an aircraft accident at the age of 33.
Eugene Bullard served as an infantryman with the French Foreign Legion in World War I. In 1917 he flew briefly with the French on the Western Front.
Bessie’s legacy inspired others. In 1929, a small group of enthusiasts led by William J. Powell organized the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles to gain support and encourage Blacks to enter the field of aviation. Powell’s book Black Wings was dedicated to Coleman. Chicago’s first Black flying club, Challenger Air Pilots’ Association, was also inspired by Coleman.
The 1930’s brought more acceptance of Black pilots. Black stunt pilots performed at air shows. In 1932, James Herman Banning and mechanic Thomas C. Allen became the first Black aviators to fly across the continent. Their historic journey took 41 hours and 27 minutes.
Other pilots, like C. Alfred Anderson and Dr. Albert E. Forsythe, used flights to promote interracial harmony and demonstrate their skills. In 1933 Anderson and Forsythe flew from Atlantic City to Los Angeles and back, completing the first round trip transcontinental flight by a Black pilot. Then, in 1934, they organized their “Good Will Flight” from Miami to Nassau.
TUSKEGEE AIRMEN – A Salute to The “Red Tails” – Overcoming Prejudice, Excelling in War!
“She [Eleanor Roosevelt] told me, ‘I always heard Negroes couldn’t fly and I wondered if you’d mind taking me up’…When we came back, she said, ‘Well, you can fly all right.’ I’m positive that when she went home, she said, ‘Franklin, I flew with those boys down there, and you’re going to have to do something about it.’” – C. Alfred Anderson
In spite of their demonstrated flying abilities, Black aviators in the 1930s still faced numerous challenges – everything from segregated facilities to hostile receptions at airfields and even the refusal of some airports to service aircraft flown by Blacks.
In 1939 Congress finally authorized the training of military pilots at civilian schools. But that certainly didn’t mean Black pilots. Congress and military officials were of the utmost belief and mindset that Blacks were not intelligent enough or capable of flying a plane. A war college report from the mid-1920, titled “The Use of Negro Manpower in War,” sheds light on the huge obstacles that Black Americans faced in the 20th Century. The report signed by Major General H. E. Ely, called Black men “cowards and poor technicians and fighters, lacking initiative and resourcefulness.” It claimed that the brain of an average Black man weighed 10 ounces less than the average brain of a white man. It stated the Blacks were “a subspecies of the human population.” The NAACP made fervent requests to the War Department to allow Blacks to join the Army Air Corps. As war loomed, a 1937 study advised the military to begin accepting more Blacks but to continue the prohibition against Black Aviators. The First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt set out to prove them wrong and championed African Americans aviators in the Army Air Corps. “Can Negroes really fly airplanes?” questioned Eleanor Roosevelt… a woman with the influence and power to make a difference (and she certainly did) in obtaining the rights and recognition for the Tuskegee Airmen. Eleanor asked that she be taken on a flight by one of the Tuskegee Airmen. Shocked Secret Service agents tried to dissuade the first lady against this. The agents rushed to call President Roosevelt and he simply said, “Well, if she wants to do it, there’s nothing we can do to stop her.” After Mrs. Roosevelt’s 30 minute flight she reportedly said, “I guess Negroes can fly.” Less than three months later, the first class of 13 Black pilots entered the pilot training program at the newly designated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Almost 1000 young Black men graduated from Tuskegee. In 1941, Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the commanding officer of the Tuskegee Airmen was the first African American to become a general in the Air Force was also the first to solo in an aircraft as an Army Corps officer.
The first class of Black pilots was graduated on May 6, 1942.
The Tuskegee Airmen was comprised of an elite group of African American pilots who flew combat missions during WWII and pioneered military aviation. Also included were bombardiers, navigators, maintenances and support staff, instructors, and all other personnel who kept the planes in the air. The men earned the nickname “Red Tail Angels” from the White pilots since the bombers considered their escorts guardian angels because they never left their side and fiercely and successfully protected them from enemy fire. These gentlemen persevered despite the obstacles and barriers of prejudice.
The BHL was honored and graced with the presence of Tuskegee Airmen Alexander Jefferson as the guest speaker for their annual Dr. King Program and Unity Walk in 2006! Lt. Col. Jefferson flew 18 combat missions as a P-51 pilot based in Italy. In 1944 he was shot down while on a mission over France and captured by German troops, spending 9 months in a prison camp. The library also has a collection of memorabilia relative to the Tuskegee Airmen including a signed copy of Jefferson’s memoirs, titled “Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free,” one of the few memoirs of combat in WWII by an African American.
In 1993, The Center hosted a banquet for over 30 of the Tuskegee Airmen from the Columbus Chapter.
Captain Harold Sawyer was the honored guest at The Center’s grand opening at its new location in 2004. Captain Sawyer donated his uniform, flying papers and medals to the BHL&MC.
The 332nd Fighter Group known as the “Red Tails”- the esteemed and famous all Black WWII Fighter Group- never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft under their watch and escort…the only unit to do so! Four Black fighter squadrons – the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd – saw service in Europe as part of the 332nd Fighter Group.
The first Black commanding officer Benjamin O. Davis said, “If you lose a bomber, don’t come back.” The Tuskegee Airmen were highly intelligent and extremely disciplined.
On March 7, 1942 the first contingent of Black pilots were inducted into the US Army Air Corps on Tuskegee’s airstrip. Eight days later the 100th Fighter Squadron was established as a part of the 332nd Fighter Group. On June 9, 1943 Black pilots were finally given the opportunity to engage in aerial combat.
The first Black Army Air Corps pilots returned from WWII highly decorated with 744 Air medals, 95 distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts, two Soldier’s Medals, one Legion of Merit and one Silver Star! But, despite their victories over insurmountable obstacles and their exemplary service to country, African American pilots were not welcomed home from war with open arms. Instead they continued to be faced with racial hostility, decimation and racism. The Tuskegee airmen had to fight two major battles – against the Germans and racial prejudice (racism) in America. The US military was not desegregated until 1948 of which some of the airmen took an active part in the civil rights movement…
The Tuskegee Airmen received 744 Air Medals; 8 Purple Hearts; and 14 Bronze Stars!
Col. Benjamin Davis…
To the last man! To the last plane! To the last bullet!
Duke Ellington song “Straighten Up and Fly Right”
“I’m not saying we’re (the Tuskegee Airmen) were better than anyone, but we were just as good. The fact that we were Black was just incidental. Flying is still flying. The equipment reacts the same whether it’s in Black or white hands.” –Capt. Harold E. Sawyer
The Tuskegee Airmen overcame segregation and prejudice to become one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II. They proved beyond a doubt that African Americans can fly and maintain sophisticated combat aircraft. The achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen, together with the people who supported them, pioneered the way for the full integration of Blacks in the U.S. Military.
On November 6, 1998, President Clinton approved Public Law 105-355 which established the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama to commemorate and interpret the heroic actions of the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII.
Institute, T. S. (n.d.). The Black Wings Story. Retrieved May 1, 2013, from Black Wings: African American Pioneer Aviators: http://airandspace.si.edu/blackwings/hstory/index.html
The National Parks Service. (n.d.). Tuskegee Airmen. Retrieved May 1, 2013, from American Visionaries: Tuskegee Airmen: http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/tuskegee/airoverview.htm