This is more than the usual white columnist’s obligatory piece for Black History Month. This is from my own experience. It’s probably an overreach to call it a brush with history. Because, no history was made during this encounter. It was just a chance for a 15-year-old who grew up in the days of segregation to come face-to-face with an American hero. An African American Air Force General who earned his pilot’s wings in 1943 at the Tuskegee Institute.
It was 1975 and I was tagging along with my dad when he went to play golf at the Army Navy Country Club. It was his usual golf buddies, the pace was slow, and there was a steady banter. But playing along that day was a friend of one of my dad’s golf cohorts, Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James. He was an Air Force general who had just become the commander of the North American Air Defense Command, and he was the first African American to hold four-star rank.
I remember they had a good-natured game — I caddied for my dad, I didn’t play — and along the way the general asked me about how I was doing in school, and in particular, about my math scores. I said they were pretty good, and he suggested I think about the Air Force as a career. Most of my dad’s golf buddies were retired Air Force and voiced their approval, but I said, while the Air Force was “neat,” I liked the Navy. In a very fatherly way, he shook his head, said, “the Navy, huh,” and encouraged me to keep an open mind. After the game was done and my dad and I were enjoying an afternoon snack at Hot Shoppes, a local eatery back in the day, I learned a little more about General James and segregation in the armed services.
As my dad explained to me, the idea of an African American Air Force pilot, let alone an African American Air Force general, would have seemed incredible just a few decades earlier. Being a combat pilot, even after the start of World War II, was just for whites. General James had to overcome a lot to get where he was.
It wasn’t until 1939 that African Americans were able to train to be pilots at the Civilian Pilot Training Program at the Tuskegee Institute, an African American college. However, even with war on the horizon, the Army Air Corps (now the U.S. Air Force) still wouldn’t allow these students to train to be military pilots. That didn’t happen until 1941 and it was there that the remarkable story of the Tuskegee Airmen began.
Even then, while these new pilots qualified and received commissions, most languished at training bases. The Army Air Corps refused to deploy African American pilots to combat zones. In the warped reasoning of the time, the fear was that since there were no segregated aviation units, it would mean that blacks, as officers, could end up assigned to units where they would be commanding whites. This simply wouldn’t be allowed. So, the only solution was a separate black fighter squadron, but even this notion was opposed by the upper echelons in
the Air Corps. Apparently getting their wings was only one part of their challenge, getting a chance to take on the enemy was another.
Though it’s probably more legend than fact, the story goes that Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee, went on a flight with one of the newly commissioned pilots, and was so impressed by these African American pilots that when she got back to Washington she personally asked the head of the Army Air Corps, General Henry Arnold, why these men weren’t flying in combat? Arnold quickly deferred to the first lady and ordered the formation of a new squadron. They became the 99th Pursuit Squadron, perhaps one of the most distinguished fighter squadrons of the war.
General James, the man I met on that summer day 45 years ago, was a Tuskegee airman. He got his wings in 1943 but, against his wishes, he was forced to stay in the United States to help train other African American pilots. However, during Korea and Vietnam, he saw lots of action and flew over 100 combat missions. He was known for being courageous, encouraging and extremely demanding of himself and those who worked for him.
As my dad’s golfing buddy, the one who knew the general when they served together put it, “James was the kind of man you wanted to follow.” No doubt the general had to deal with racism and hostility throughout his career, and he overcame it all. Summing up his career, he once said he “just wanted to serve his country.” If there is a better epitaph, I don’t know what it is.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.