By Von Hardesty
In the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was a growing power on the world stage. World War I was over, the economy was shifting into high gear and people were secure in the promise of peace and prosperity. We were also a nation mired in racial ignorance and bigotry where most of our non-white citizens were both literally and metaphorically forced to the back of the bus (To be absolutely clear, slavery through the practice of “Convict Leasing” was also alive and well. Black people in the south would be arrested on bogus charges, convicted by an all-white jury, and then using the 13th Amendment’s criminal punishment exemption, sold up the river for the duration of their sentence. In addition, black people were also found in default of fabricated debts and put into illegal debtors prison, and subsequently convict-leased. This was a thing until FDR cracked down on it in the 1940s. Now we have private prisons and if I don’t shut up Frigid is going to hit me.). To be an African American at the time was to live under open Jim Crow laws in the South and de facto segregation in the North backed by popular opinion and the constant threat of violence in both places. Despite that African Americans managed to build businesses, own homes and achieve historical milestones, often while struggling under burdens massively greater then the rest of the populace. Manned flight was one of those areas. The American public black, white, and otherwise was enthralled with the exploits of pilots and aircraft and why not? Thanks to the Wright Brothers, a pair of bicycle mechanics with an unyielding obsession, powered heavier than air flight was an American achievement. A material event that we could point to as a sign of our progress as a people and a nation. We had found a way to fight gravity and win and a number of African Americans felt that if they could take part in such an achievement it could only help break down barriers.
The vast majority of flight clubs would not train black men or women to become pilots. However there was an elite cadre of men and women who weren’t going to let that stop them. Bessie Coleman, America's first black woman pilot for example, went to France and got a Federation Aeronautique Internationale license, she attended a flight school in the north of France in the Somme region and graduated in June 15th 1921. She returned to America and became a barnstormer. Barnstormers were stunt pilots, named because the first ones operated out of barns and any other structure big enough to hold an aircraft. They would perform aerial stunts for crowds in an early version of today's air shows. Bessie would struggle for funding until her all-too-early death in 1926 as a possible patron took her for a flight and the plane stalled and crashed. There were others however, such as businesses owner, World War I veteran William Powell Jr. William Powell had been a Lt. in the 317th engineer regiment and 365th infantry regiment and had been gassed on the very last day of the war. He would open the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in L.A, which was open to both sexes and all races in a time and place where most air clubs were white men only. Unfortunately the gassing he suffered led to him having to retire due to medical issues and he would pass away in 1942. As you can see the book shows a pattern of African American leaders rising up, accomplishing great things and then, dying or having to pass on the torch. While early flight was dangerous and many pilots of the time died in accidents, a good amount of these are because African American pilots of the time were often forced to fly old planes that even under the best maintenance weren't very dependable, or not fly at all. That said I do have to point out that even new aircraft with top of the line maintenance at this point in time weren't very dependable or sturdy. The simple fact of the matter was that flying, especially flight so near the limits of the aircraft's performance, was incredibly dangerous at the time and many pilots paid for their daring with their lives. (Smaller aircraft in general are like that. Modern commercial jets have all kinds of safety features built in and they’re designed within an inch of the lives of hundreds of engineers. Smaller craft… less so.)
As the 1920s passed into the 1930s however African American pilots kept pushing against the barriers. James Banning became the first black man in America to get a pilot license from the Department of Commerce. No flight school would teach him so he used his own money to buy a plane and hired a WWI pilot to teach him how to fly. In 1932, he decided to attempt a transcontinental flight across the United States becoming the first black pilot to fly coast to coast. Today that doesn't seem to mean much as someone can fly coast to coast in hours but back then? It took days. James Banning's flight took 22 days and he logged in 41 hours in the air. Sadly he would die in 1933 on a return flight as the plane stalled out and crashed. This wasn't due to pilot error but due to the fact that the plane was old because Banning had little in the way of financial support. However there were others to pick up the torch. Alfred Anderson and Albert Forsythe would fly the first transcontinental round trip by black pilots. Alfred Anderson (known by his nickname Chief Anderson that he picked up in World War II) learned to pilot by relentless effort, since it was difficult to find anyone willing to teach a black man how to fly, he worked as an airplane mechanic and bought his own plane, renting it out to pilots in exchange for lessons. He and Forsythe would gain attention for their flights across the US and Canada even embarking on a Pan-American goodwill tour in their plane that they had named the Booker T Washington. Anderson was recruited to serve as a flight instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen (see I told you there was World War II stuff in here). It was here he meet Eleanor Roosevelt who was touring the base and on her suggestion took her on a flight. As a result First Lady Roosevelt would remain a steadfast supporter of the “Tuskegee experiment.” (She was so awesome)
Let's talk about that for a moment. US military policy had become inherently racist in the 1930s, with different studies claiming that black men were unfit for anything but menial labor (Racism had, by this time, fully merged with the Eugenics that was popular at the time into an extra special American Racist Voltron, and America had insane bullshit like Beautiful White Baby contests. We also sterilized our own Mindervertige. By which I of course mean the disabled and people of color.) and were incapable of leadership (black women weren't considered for membership in the armed forces). As a result of this only 2% of the military was made up of African Americans (Who can blame them? Would you want to join an organization that declared you fit only for service as a human mule?) However by 1939 Congress created the Civil Pilot Training Program and opened segregated classes to pilot candidates, before the program there had been less than 50 African American pilots in the US, by 1940 there were 231. With war raging in and across three continents and three oceans, it was becoming clear to the government that there was no way to avoid being involved. It was also clear that if we were going to win, we would have to stop wasting talent. Executive Order 8802 established the Tuskegee Army Air Base for the training of black fighter pilots in July of 1941. Benjamin O Davis Jr, the eventual commander of the unit, enrolled. He had graduated West Point in 1936, despite being shunned by his white classmates and had grown up in the army, being the son of the army's only black general. His professionalism and knowledge of army culture were assets in the face of a military that really preferred that his unit quietly and quickly disappear forever. They faced many barriers, for example despite being officers they were denied the same treatment as white officers, for example being banned from officer’s clubs (Of course they were…). This led to a mutiny as a over 100 black officers would attempt to enter the Freemen Fields Officer club and were arrested. Three were court martialed but only one was convicted. Additionally there were issues in the civilian towns around the bases, in one town for example the laundry would refuse to wash black pilots clothes while happily washing the clothes of German POWs... (I mean… it’s Tuskegee. The Klan and the Nazis were reading from the same racist hymnal. I mean, in the same town they had a bunch of civilian black men under Government Orders to not get treated for syphilis because they were part of an experiment on the progression of the disease in black men. Ironically enough, because the doctor leading the study was trying to prove that white and black men were identical in that respect. For some reason *coughcough* racism*coughcough* that was a controversial position to take. )
Despite that the 99th Fighter Squadron deployed to Europe in 1943, they arrived in April. Their first combat mission was in June. Their first air victory was in July. By the beginning of 1944 they were achieving 7 to 1 kill ratios against German aircraft. Among other achievements, they also have the first enemy destroyer sunk by machine gun fire. Additionally, they flew combat missions in the battle of Monte Cassino (which you may remember from our last review). By the end of February, three more squadrons for African American pilots were created and in combat operations. In May of 1944 they were assigned to escorting bomber raids into Germany, Poland, Hungary and other targets. The 99th Squadron became part of the 332nd Fighter group and while on escort duty they would adopt the distinctive red tail paint job that they would be known by. Of the 179 escort missions they flew, they lost bombers on seven missions for a total of 27 lost bombers on their watch. The average lost for other units was 46 bombers in the same time period. In grand total they would fly 1578 combat missions, shooting down 112 enemy aircraft and destroying an additional 150 on the ground. Of the 992 pilots trained at Tuskegee Army Air Base, 322 would see combat, 84 would be killed in combat or in accidents and an additional 32 captured by enemy forces. They would receive a number of meritorious citations as a unit and individual pilots also received a number of awards. With 96 Distinguished flying crosses awarded, 14 bronze stars, 8 purple hearts and 1 silver star. In 1948, President Truman would sign Executive Order 9981 abolishing racial discrimination in the armed forces and leading to the end of racial segregation in the US military. Three of the Tuskegee airmen would go on to become generals in the US Air Force including the first African American Air Force General Daniel James Jr.
Unfortunately this wasn't the end of the struggle. While the Tuskegee airmen found themselves in heavy demand as instructors and commanders after the War, at least in the Air Force, in the civilian world the emerging airlines were less than thrilled at the idea of hiring black pilots. Marlon Green, an airforce pilot with 3000 hours in the air applied to Continental Airlines in 1957 and was rejected. He sued and in a battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, won in 1963. By 1976 there were 81 African American commercial pilots. NASA also proved a struggle, with Edward Dwight the first African American candidate being rejected, NASA officials would maintain that he had been rejected because those approved had scored higher than him but suspicion of racial basis would linger. The next candidate Robert Lawrence would die in a crash while training in the Air Force program. However Guion “Guy” Bluford, a Vietnam vet with 4,600 hours in the air would not only become the first Black Astronaut but he would log 688 hours in space while serving in the Space Shuttle program.
Black Wings gives us a full view of the struggles faced by African Americans who simply wanted to fly planes and be treated like actual citizens of their country. The triumphs and tragedy of that long struggle through the 20th century serve as a reminder of our nations shortcomings and its ability to rise above itself and become something better. The book itself provides a good, if somewhat short, overview of this history and provides a good number of photos and biographical information on the many larger than life personalities and heroes of the time. There are many more than I spoke about in the review. It's a good introductory text and I would recommend it if you haven't really looked into this area of history before. That said it's not an in-depth study of the subject and by trying to cover the whole 20th century in under 200 pages, it's a more of an overview than anything else. Black Wings by Von Hardesty still gets an A- however.
Next week, we celebrate American Independence with 1776! Keep reading.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen, who provided all text in red.