In spite of adversity and limited opportunities, African Americans have played a significant role in U.S. military history over the past three hundred years. They were denied military leadership roles and skilled training because many believed that they lacked qualifications for combat duty. Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military. Civil rights organizations and the black press exerted pressure that resulted in the formation of an all African-American pursuit squadron based in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1941. They became known as the “Tuskegee Airmen.”
The name, “Tuskegee Airmen,” refers to all who were involved in the so-called “Tuskegee Experiment,” the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and to maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.
The military selected Tuskegee Institute to train pilots because of its commitment to aeronautical training. Tuskegee had the facilities, the engineering and technical instructors, and a climate for year-round flying. The first Civilian Pilot Training Program students completed their instruction in May 1940. The Tuskegee program was then expanded and became the center for African-American aviation during World War II.
The Tuskegee Airmen overcame segregation and prejudice to become one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II. They proved conclusively that African Americans could fly and maintain sophisticated combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen’s achievements, together with those of the men and women who supported them, paved the way for full integration of the U.S. military.
One Airman’s Story
Robert Marshall Glass Captain, U.S. Air Force December 17, 1920–January 24, 1955
Already a qualified pilot, Robert Marshall Glass was one of the highly skilled and committed young men to join the 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen. Glass had been born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he attended public school. He graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering.
RobertGlass signed up at Tuskegee Army Air Field on January 28, 1943, and attended cadet school at Tuskegee. Charles “Chief” Anderson was one of his flying instructors at Tuskegee and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., was his commanding officer.
Glass served his country in World War II and during the Korean conflict. He was a senior pilot who had received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the EAME Campaign medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Distinguished Unit Citation, and the National Defense Service medal. His last duty station was at Wright Air Development Center, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. At the time of his death, Captain Glass was at the Air Command Staff School, Maxwell Air Force Base. Robert Marshall Glass’s name is inscribed on the Memorial Honor Roll of the Air Force, Air Force Aid Society, Washington, D.C.
Civilian Pilot Training
The few African Americans who learned to fly in the early 1900s were self-taught or had been trained overseas. After Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight, African-American interest in flying increased. Aviation clubs and schools were formed.
The U.S. government sponsored African-American flight training in 1939 with the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) Act. Administered by the Civilian Aeronautics Association (CAA), the Act authorized selected schools to offer CPT primary flight training for pilots in case of a national emergency. Schools for African-American candidates included Tuskegee Institute, Howard University, Hampton Institute, and the Coffey School of Aeronautics. The government paid for ground and flight school instruction. Colleges provided instructors, physical examinations for potential students, and transportation to approved flying fields. Tuskegee Institute originally offered elementary or primary CPT courses. In July 1940, the CAA authorized Tuskegee Institute to provide advanced CPT courses.
Training for War
Tuskegee, Alabama, became the focal point for training African-American military pilots during World War II. Tuskegee Institute received a contract from the military and provided primary flight training while the army built a separate, segregated base, Tuskegee Army Air Field (also referred to as the Advanced Flying School) for advanced training. Support personnel were trained at Chanute Field in Illinois.
The first class, which included student officer Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., began training on July 19, 1941. Rigorous training in subjects such as meteorology, navigation, and instruments was provided in ground school. Successful cadets then transferred to the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field to complete Army Air Corps pilot training. The Air Corps oversaw training at Tuskegee Institute, providing aircraft, textbooks, flying clothes, parachutes, and mechanic suits while Tuskegee Institute provided full facilities for the aircraft and personnel. Lieutenant Colonel Noel F. Parrish, base commander from 1942–1946, worked to lessen the impact of segregation on the cadets.
Many cadets got their primary flight instruction at Moton Field, Tuskegee, from Charles A. “Chief” Anderson. In March 1942, the first class of five African-American aviation cadets earned their silver wings to become the nation’s first black military pilots. Between 1941 and 1945, Tuskegee trained over one thousand black aviators for the war effort.
Moton Field was the only primary flight facility for African-American pilot candidates in the U.S. Army Air Corps (Army Air Forces) during World War II. It was named for Robert Russa Moton, second president of Tuskegee Institute. Moton Field was built between 1940 and 1942 with funding from the Julius Rosenwald Fund to provide primary flight training under a contract with the U.S. military. Staff from Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama, provided assistance in selecting and mapping the site. Architect Edward C. Miller and engineer G.L. Washington designed many of the structures. Archie A. Alexander, an engineer and contractor, oversaw construction of the flight school facilities. Tuskegee Institute laborers and skilled workers helped finish the field so that flight training could start on time. Tuskegee Institute was one of the very few American institutions to own, develop, and control facilities for military flight instruction.
After pilot cadets passed primary flight training at Moton Field, they transferred to Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) to complete their training with the Army Air Corps. TAAF was a full-scale military base (albeit segregated) built by the U.S. military. The facility at Moton Field included two aircraft hangars, a control tower, locker building, clubhouse, wooden offices and storage buildings, brick storage buildings, and a vehicle maintenance area. The base at Tuskegee Army Air Field was closed in 1946. In 1972, a large portion of the airfield at Moton Field was deeded to the city of Tuskegee for use as a municipal airport which is still in use today.
Charles “Chief” Anderson
Known as Charles “Chief” Anderson by the pilots he trained, Charles Alfred Anderson was a pioneer of African-American aviation. A commercial pilot, he and Dr. Albert E. Forsythe in 1933 were the first African Americans to make a transcontinental trip by air from Atlantic City to Los Angeles and back. The two later flew a goodwill flight to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and six other Caribbean countries in their plane named The Spirit of Booker T. Washington.
Anderson taught civilian pilot training courses at Howard University, Washington, D.C. In 1940, he joined the faculty at Tuskegee Institute as head of the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. Chief Anderson gave Eleanor Roosevelt a plane ride when she visited Tuskegee in 1941. She was determined to counter the view that African Americans couldn’t fly. Their photograph was seen all over the U.S. Mrs. Roosevelt’s plane ride gave an enormous boost to black aviation.
The successful CPT under Anderson’s leadership was a major factor in the Army Air Corps decision to establish a primary training program at Tuskegee. As chief flight instructor at Tuskegee, he supervised primary flight training for one thousand African-American pilots at Moton Field.
1. The “Tuskegee Experiment” was an Army Air Corps trial program attempting to
a. teach African Americans to fly commercial aircraft.
b.help black and white American pilots have more respect for one another.
c. allow African Americans into the army for the first time in history.
d.teach African Americans to fly military aircraft.
2. Why were the “Tuskegee Airmen” so named?
a. They were part of an experiment.
b. They were African Americans from the South.
c. They were trained at the Tuskegee airbase in Alabama.
d. They were from Tuskegee, Alabama.
3. According to the article, why didn’t African Americans fly military planes prior to 1940?
a. African Americans were not allowed in the military until 1940.
b. African Americans had, up until then, refused to enlist in the army because they did not want to fight for a country that had treated them so poorly.
c. Some people believed that they did not have the necessary skills to fly an aircraft.
d. There were no military pilots, black or white, prior to this time.
4. What historical event sparked African-American interest in flying?
a. World War I
c. Charles Lindbergh’s flight
d. the passing of the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program
5. Tuskegee, Alabama was chosen as the place for training because of
a. its facilities.
b. its instructors.
c. its climate.
d. all of the above.
6. Why was Moton Field an important part of the training for African-American pilot candidates?
a. This was where they received their initial flight training.
b. It was named after Robert Moton.
c. Moton Field was part of the Tuskegee school.
d. It was where they took all their academic classes.
7. Why were successful cadets transferred to the Tuskegee Army Air Field to complete Army Air Corps pilot training?
a. Other fields had been destroyed in the war.
b. Only the best pilots, black or white, where trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field.
c. Other fields were under construction.
d. Airfields in the United States were segregated.
8. Charles “Chief” Anderson was also a
a. graduate of the academy.
b. political activist.
c. commercial pilot.
d. black leader.
9. Which of the following did not directly result from the attention gained by the Tuskegee Airmen?
a. African Americans proved that they could fly airplanes.
b. African-American pilots earned more respect.
c. African Americans became fully integrated into the military.
d. African Americans proved that they could maintain airplanes.
10. Read the following selection from this passage:
In what way did Eleanor Roosevelt probably help to improve attitudes towards African Americans?Chief Anderson gave Eleanor Roosevelt a plane ride when she visited Tuskegee in 1941. She was determined to counter the view that African Americans couldn’t fly. Their photograph was seen all over the U.S. Mrs. Roosevelt’s plane ride gave an enormous boost to black aviation.