Times Past

Times Past: Tuskegee airmen proved bravery, but they still suffered prejudice

“As far as I am concerned, you fly just fine, young man!”

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s comments to a Tuskegee chief air instructor ended the arguments put forward by some racist congressmen from the South that black people couldn’t fly aircraft in time of war.

America’s black soldiers had proved their heroism in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War and during World War I.

During World War II, black soldiers once again had to prove their worth. Eleanor Roosevelt was sent by her husband to visit the Tuskegee Institute Army-Air Corps training program in April 1941.

Mrs. Roosevelt asked how well the men could fly. The director replied, “Would you like to take an airplane ride?” Despite the objections of Secret Service agents, Mrs. Roosevelt accepted.

With Mrs. Roosevelt in the back seat of his Piper J-3 Cub, Chief Charles Anderson took off and flew her around for half an hour. Upon landing, Mrs. Roosevelt turned to the chief and said, “As far as I’m concerned, Negroes can fly.”

For all their training, it took Mrs. Roosevelt’s observations to affirm the program.

The 1930s and early ’40s America’s military had segregated or separate black and white units. The Army Air Corps did not have any black pilots. Racist thinking had led to a policy of excluding blacks using scandalous terms such as “lower intelligence, worse coordination, and slower reflexes.”

In 1940, President Roosevelt wanted to both hold on to the black vote and promote national unity during the European war.

He directed the Air Corps to conduct an “experiment.” Young black men would be trained as pilots at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Assessments would be made as to whether these men were capable of serving as pilots.

The first cadets began training in July 1941. Five of the original 13 completed the course in March 1942. That was when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent the first lady to “check matters out,” as she so often did for our disabled president.

By 1946, 994 pilots graduated from Tuskegee. The airmen formed 99th Fighter Squadron (later becoming the 332nd Fighter Group) led by Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

They had to constantly ignore racial slurs. There were segregation laws enforced by Southern society and continued on American bases, even those in England, by the Air Corps.

The Tuskegee Airmen were called “Red-Tail Angels” by the grateful B-17 crews. They were known for the crimson tails on their P-51 Mustangs, hence the title of the new George Lucas movie, “Red Tails,” which has opened locally with some great reviews.

Arthur Hicks of Lompoc trained P-51 Mustang pilots at Tuskegee. He recalled his experience in a 1998 New Times article by T.M. Lowe.

They accompanied a thousand American bombers in their dangerous missions over Germany. The airmen were proud to say they never lost a bomber even when confronted by Germany’s last “secret weapon,” the Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first jet fighter.

The prejudice that confronted the Tuskegee Airmen extended to our county with segregated units at Camps Cooke, San Luis Obispo and Roberts.

Fighting prejudice is still an American problem.

You and your family can make a difference next Sunday by participating in a uniquely San Luis Obispo event, the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Barbecue at the Elks Club, 222 Elks Lane, from noon to 3 p.m.

You can join friends at the round tables or enjoy a great “takeout” venue for the game on Super Bowl Sunday.

For only $10, you’ll get a wonderful chicken dinner that supports graduating seniors of all races from San Luis Obispo County’s high schools to go on to college.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.