The Tuskegee Experiment: How the Red Tails Impacted African American Identity

War, especially worldwide war, is a major psychological experience for society as a whole. War brings disruption and destruction physically, but also has the ability to disrupt a nation or a group of people identity. It tests and changes existing institutions and necessitates the participation of underprivileged groups.[1] After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 America unified in a war effort against Japan, Germany and the axis powers. African Americans viewed the war as a possible turning point for their role in society. Excitement to participate in the war along with a despise for fascism spread through the African American community, but a segregated American system drafted about 5,000 African American men and a few dozen officers at the start of the war[2]. This segregation and racism is what African Americans had been swimming upstream against in their efforts to be an influential piece of American society. While World War II did alter American life in many different ways, one thing it would not change is the equality gap between white and black America. But African Americans who fought overseas and those who worked in the factories of America cities producing goods for the men abroad would take huge strides in their own unity and progress. After World War II complacency with segregation and racism was no longer an option of a newly united African American voice. The men at the forefront and an influential example of unity were the Tuskegee Airmen.

Three major pre World War II events shaped African American life in the early 1940s. World War I, the Great Depression, and the Great Migration caused a more homogenous black America than what had been previously been in place. Despite their second-class status World War I provided African Americans an opportunity to express their loyalty and importance to America. At that same time blacks in America were on the move. The mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern cities during World War I, through the Great Depression and even into World War II is known as the Great Migration.[3] It created black communities in cities across America that are still geographically visible today. Black participation in World War I and the growing strength of their communities made submitting to the racism surrounding them far more unlikely. Blacks still suffered disproportionally during the Great Depression and were discriminated against in the New Deal, but as another world conflict arose African Americans recognized the crisis as another opportunity to improve their standing in American life.[4]

Fascism was used as a metaphor for racism in America in what became known as the “Double V” campaign. A. Phillip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, America’s first mostly black union, and major civil rights leader of the era, reminded America that World War I had “neither won democracy at home or abroad.”[5] His March on Washington forced the Executive order 8802 in June of 1941, which ended “discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government.”[6] President Roosevelt’s executive order brought the number of African Americans in war industries up from 3 to 8 percent.[7] While this did somewhat effectively mobilize black America in the workforce, it certainly did not end discrimination or racism at home or overseas. Employers still assigned blacks to the lowest paying jobs and whites often responded with anger and violence when told to work along side their black co-workers. It had been decided that training would be non-segregated; in order to better allocate resources, but the active military remained segregated. The plan in the Air Force, specifically, was for blacks to stay on the ground while white pilots, who were presumed to be more capable, took to the sky[8]. But black members of a flight school that lay in the heart of the discriminatory south were prepared to change that.

The school at the town of Tuskegee, Alabama began in 1881 for the children of freed slaves after Reconstruction. Notorious African American leader Booker T. Washington was the first head of the school. [9] By the late 1930s it remained a center for black education. Thanks to the efforts of John Robinson, colonel of the Ethiopian air force in their efforts against Mussolini in the mid 1930s, flight training at Tuskegee began in 1940.[10] When the War began the government made the Tuskegee Air Base the most important pilot training facility in the country.[11] The Tuskegee air base was a segregated camp, different from what was in place for the army where blacks and whites were trained together. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor the government moved many air units to Tuskegee and the air base grew rapidly. The idea of all African American fighter pilot units was intriguing enough to black leaders such as Judge Hastie that training segregation was not much of an issue.[12] The all-black pursuit squadrons training in Tuskegee began preparing for action overseas.

The story of the Red Tails in combat and their impact on black life in America begins April 1, 1943 when the 99th Fighter Squadron was the first all-black fighter pilot unit to ship overseas[13]. As new comers to the Mediterranean Theater the 99th was not thrown into heavy action i13258rmmediately. They traveled across northern Africa with the goal of disabling ground troops in Sicily and Italy so that the Allied ground troops could move in and cause a German retreat. The 99th squadron earned their stripes by successfully escorting bomber pilots, who were all white groups, over Sicily and Italy, taking out any Germans who may have been in the air space so that the bomber plane could safely drop and return to the African base. Stories, good and bad, reached soldiers on the grodevelopedund and leaders at home. The 99th squadron  a reputation of effectiveness, while at times being over aggressive. This reputation would lead to debate as other Tuskegee squadrons were waiting to deploy and join the 99th.[14]

For fighter pilots, as well as for ground troops, strict segregation altered the social dynamic of life on the frontlines.[15] Blacks and whites were expected to have each other’s backs in the air, but could not be together on the ground during times of no action. With segregation comes racism. The all too familiar verbal slander black pilots dealt with at home did not get lost the Atlantic Ocean on the trip overseas. An event that would become a staple in the story of the odds stacked against the Tuskegee Airmen was their near demise at the hands of Colonel Momyer. Shortly after the 99th moved their base from Africa to Sicily, Momyer aimed to discredit the Tuskegee “experiment” and disband the 99th fighter unit. He wanted the black units to be reassigned to other duties and their aircrafts be given to white pilots who he claimed were more tactical and did not mistakes being aggressive in the air.[16] Time magazine published an article in September 1943 about the 99th squadron saying that it would be taken off the front lines because “there is no lack of work to be done by Negroes as labor and engineering troops—the Army’s dirty work.”[17] The black community’s reaction to this article at home and abroad was the same; it would not be complied with.

Lieutenant Colonel Davis was one of the few African American officers in the military and protected the 99th squadron’s integrity, while his wife fought just as hard at home. She sent a letter to the editor of Time, which was published in October of 1943. She described how the 99th compared to the other white fighter groups and what they had been doing to help drive back the Germans. She also pointed out the sources from the original article, namely Colonel Momyer, was trying to undermine the moral of the 99th squad as well as the rest of black America, which was beneficial to no one in the war effort.[18] Davis’ wife was voicing the frustration of a large majority of the African American community in America during the war. Migration of all races, not only African Americans, to centers of war production such as Detroit and California created a changing social setting that was not smooth. The New Deal had created low-income housing in many northern cities, which was beneficial to black families who were being paid less than their white counterparts in their war production jobs.[19] Housing and job disputes lead to race riots all over the country. 1943 saw race riots in Detroit, Harlem, Alabama and Texas which left African Americans feeling attacked at home while they were reading stories of their men succeeding overseas.[20]

Overseas the 99th Fighter Squadron had pushed into Italy and was finding great success in a new Fighter Group, the 79th.[21] They were increasingly feeling accepted by white pilots and officers, likely because they were racking up double digit kills in single missions, something white pilots were jealous of while remaining supportive. While the 99th squad continued to be victorious the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, made up of three Tuskegee base squadrons, was deployed into Italy.[22] The 332nd flew Bell P39Q Aircobras, which were much faster than the P-40s that the 99th operated. They too would be bomber escorts early on, but in It13260_150pxaly, which was a much more active environment than Africa had been for the 99th. When the 332nd group had a solid foot in the door on the Mediterranean front the 99th squad joined them as well creating a huge group of intelligent, successful, and feared black pilots.[23] The training camp at Tuskegee had created its own small all-black air force, one that was full of confidence and was no longer second fiddle to their white counterparts. They were better. From 1943 through 1945 the 332nd, along with the entirety of the Allied forces, moved in on Hitler’s shrinking Germany. In the face of continued, yet spattered, racism the Tuskegee Airmen executed their missions with class and professionalism, striking terror into the hearts of the Germans, but maybe more importantly, those who stood by Jim Crow.[24]

The curtain shut on European Theater of World War II in the spring of 1945.[25] The Tuskegee Airmen continued to bomb what was left of German forces after Hitler’s death and began to prepare for their return to America. Veteran came back to a very different America than the one they had left. In four long years America had leaped out of economic depression and through dominance in war made itself the largest economic and political force in the world. The African American community watch Italian, Irish, and German Americans come home to be part of a more unified America, but a unified white America.[26] More African American’s were employed, but segregation remained as war production ended. But the stories of professionalism and honor brought back with the Tuskegee Airmen and black soldiers alike began to set a precedent. Riots ended and organizations started gaining ground. The NAACP developed the slogan “Victory begins with you. Help win the peace.”[27] Not reacting to racial acts was no longer viewed as complacency; it was being stronger, better, just like the Tuskegee Airmen were in the skies above Africa and Italy. The Tuskegee Airmen set the example for the leaders to come who would conquer and end segregation.

[1] Neil A. Wynn, The Afro-American and the Second World War (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1993), 1-2.

[2] Wynn, Afro-American and the Second World War, 22.

[3] Wynn, Afro-American and the Second World War, 8.

[4] Wynn, Afro-American and the Second World War, 20.

[5] Henry L. Gates Jr., Life upon these shores: looking at African American history, 1513-2008 (New York: Knoph, 2011), 298.

[6] United States National Archives and Records Administration, Our Documents: 100 milestone documents from the National Archives (New York: Oxford, 2003), 174.

[7] Gates, Life upon these shores, 299.

[8] Wynn, Afro-American and the Second World War, 23.

[9] Barry M. Stentiford, Tuskegee Airmen (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012), 25.

[10] Stentiford, Airmen, 29.

[11] Stentiford, Airmen, 41.

[12] Stentiford, Airmen, 41.

[13] Stentiford, Airmen, 49.

[14] Stentiford, Airmen, 56-57.

[15] Stentiford, Airmen, 55.

[16] Stentiford, Airmen, 65.

[17] Stentiford, Airmen, 67-68.

[18] Stentiford, Airmen, 68.

[19] Neil A. Wynn, The African American Experience during World War II (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 64.

[20] Gates, Life upon these shores, 301.

[21] Stentiford, Airmen, 74.

[22] Stentiford, Airmen, 79.

[23] Stentiford, Airmen, 81.

[24] Stentiford, Airmen, 100.

[25] Stentiford, Airmen, 123.

[26] Wynn, Afro-American and the Second World War, 99.

[27] Wynn, African American Experience, 86.

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