THE TUSKEGEE EXPERIENCE
"THE NEGRO HAS NOT THE REFLEXES
TO MAKE A FIRST CLASS PILOT"
The Tuskegee Experience was a WWII program developed to determine if African-American men could be trained to pilot airplanes
WWII changed the world irrevocably. During its height millions of people fought, and billions of dollars were spent, to determine the course of who’d rule the world; the Axis nations: Germany, Japan and Italy, or the Allied nations: United States, Britain and France.
In September of 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order instituting the draft. The order enabled the President to mobilize millions of Americans to serve in the military; given the likelihood the U.S. would enter the war. Leaders knew the military would need all three million of its eligible African- Americans to serve if the Allies had a chance at victory.
In a quest for racial parity, the Black Press, NAACP and other organizations seized the opportunity to apply pressure on the U.S. Military, forcing them to grant African-Americans roles other than cooks, laborers and other non-skilled jobs. Many voices decried the war because African-Americans would be fighting for freedom abroad, while being kept from it at home.
The Black Press initiated the DOUBLE V CAMPAIGN, a motivational program to build African-American morale. The program’s objectives were to motivate the African-American community to fight for democracy abroad as well as racial equality at home. President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood that by appeasing the African-American community it would make it easier to increase the military’s head count while maintaining the military’s segregated status; it was a balancing act.
A 1925 War College Report, titled, The Use of Negro Manpower in War, states ,“The intelligence of the Negro is shown in his inability to compete with the white in professions, and other activity in peace time when mental equipment is an essential for success.” Prevailing racist attitudes toward African-Americans are reflected in the document, whose assertions are based on conjecture and lies, not science.
Although it was the War Department who approved the program, many in the department were certain it would fail based on unfounded beliefs. There were those who believed the program to be a waste of taxpayer dollars. It was suggested that Tuskegee, AL, which is a segregated city located in the deep south, was selected to hasten the program’s demise. Interestingly, some African-Americans lauded the selection and felt pride in having a prestigious program in their midst.
In July of 1941, the first class of 12 cadets entered the nascent program. These cadets, who were intelligent and driven, came from all across the country. Each of them had earned degrees from schools such as: Howard University, Hampton Institute, West Virginia State, as well as other colleges and universities. Failure for them was not an option because they knew, if they failed, it would have proven the naysayer’s assumptions were accurate. The African-American race would not have recovered from the loss for many generations.
The program was difficult and dangerous. Some airmen lost their lives flying these powerful planes, and some were forced out for infractions that, had they been white, would not have had the same result. Unfortunately, all of them faced pervasive racism on and off base; however, they had a mission to accomplish. They persevered.
The first class of cadets graduated from the program in March of 1942. Luminaries from that class included Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. who would later move up to command the all African-American 99th
Fighter Squadron, as well as the 332d Fighter Groups.
Eventually he would advance through the ranks to become the Air Force’s first African-American general. Under his command, the 99th fighter squadron was praised for escorting bombers to and from their targets, decreasing allied casualties and increasing bomber hit rates.
Although its long-term effects are still being uncovered today, the Tuskegee Airmen’s success helped to desegregate the military and infused life into the struggle for racial equality. The U.S., albeit the world, is a much better place because the Tuskegee Airmen flew in spite of the racial barriers which attempted to keep them grounded.
The Tuskegee Experience proved to be a rousing success with over 900 African-Americans becoming trained pilots.