david kerr H&S

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Sometimes major social change starts with a simple sentence or maybe, in this case, just a couple of words.

The 1939 Army Appropriation included a line that designated funds for the training of “colored pilots.”  That’s all it said.

But those few words — all but unnoticed by the southern Democratic segregationists who dominated the major congressional committees at the time — dramatically changed the future of African-Americans in combat.  Even then it wasn’t a smooth road.

During World War I, a number of African-Americans tried to join what was then called the Army Aerial Observer Corps. That’s an ancestor of the U.S. Air Force.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; it’s still 1917, and these young African-American applicants were turned down flat.  

One African-American officer who had volunteered with the French as a pilot applied along with his fellow American officers, all whites, to transfer to the American forces just after the U.S. entered the war.

Their applications were approved, his was denied. It was a particularly nasty form of institutional racism.  Flying in the armed services, at least as far as the brass was concerned, was a whites-only business. It would stay that way until World War II.  

Even though the 1939 Army Appropriations Bill included language calling for aviation training programs for black pilots, the Army dragged its feet.  There was no support in the higher ranks of the Air Corps for training African-American pilots. But World War II was a time of social change. We also needed pilots, so bowing to public pressure the Army Air Corps set up the first training program for black aviators at The Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.  

Still, many in the Army Air Corps were anxious to let this whole idea languish in hopes that it would be forgotten. To start with, application standards for the African-American entering the Aviation Cadet program were purposely set at a higher level than those required for white pilots. Nonetheless, the Army Air Corps, whether it liked it or not, quickly had more than enough qualified African-American applicants.

The new aviation cadets trained, qualified and received commissions.  However, the Air Corps still didn’t want to deploy these pilots to war zones.

In the warped reasoning of the time, since there were no segregated aviation units in the Air Force, hardly any blacks at all for that matter, it would mean that blacks, as officers, could end up assigned to units where they would be commanding whites. The only solution, in the segregated mindset of the time, was a separate black fighter squadron.  Once again, the Army Air Corps, fighting to the last to keep blacks from being combat pilots, opposed this.

But then the racists met their match.  Her name was Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  

It’s hard to overestimate what a powerful force she was in her time.  The first lady visited Tuskegee in 1942 and, in typical Mrs. Roosevelt fashion, went on a flight with one of the Tuskegee pilots.

When she was told they weren’t being assigned to combat operations, she was incensed. On her return to Washington, she asked the head of the Army Air Corps, Gen. Henry Arnold, why these men weren’t flying in combat?  Arnold quickly ordered the formation of a new colored squadron.

The 99th Pursuit Squadron deployed in 1943. Thus began an aviation legend.  Some 450 pilots in the unit would fight in North Africa, the Mediterranean and Europe. They were, as is the case with most fighter pilots, aggressive and at times fearless.

In escorting bomber missions, they took on a distinction few units could match. None of the bombers they escorted were shot down by enemy fighters.

Known by the brightly painted vertical stabilizers on their aircraft, they dubbed themselves, the “red tails.”  The bombers they escorted, manned by whites, gave them another name, the “red-tailed angels.”


David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.

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