Before you all flood movie theaters to go see Red Tails next week, there are a few things you should know. Why in the world were pilots trained in Tuskegee, Alabama?
By 1940, the question of the United States entering World War II was not a question of if but when? African Americans nationwide jumped at the opportunity to “prove” themselves worthy of citizenship by defending their country. Although Blacks were allowed to enlist, they still faced unparalleled discrimination, segregation and were marginalized to service jobs.
Black newspapers, Civil Rights leaders and especially black colleges placed enormous pressure on Roosevelt and the American government to provide Black soldiers the opportunity to pick up arms and fight. They were particularly interested in joining the U. S. Army Air Corps (AAC) training programs. As early as 1939, Roosevelt gave the go ahead on a plan that would double the size and strength of the AAC, however, blacks did not immediately benefit from these efforts.
Black leaders fought vigorously for inclusion. Taking the lead as activists were presidents of Wilberforce, Hampton, and Tuskegee. By late 1939, Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act. With a budget of four million dollars this act authorized the creation of hundreds of flight training facilities that were to be placed at colleges throughout the countries. Needless to say, blacks continued to face more and more discrimination. Only CPT programs at Hampton, Howard, A&T, Delaware State, West Virginia State College and Tuskegee allowed Blacks an opportunity to participate.
Unfortunately, by 1940, black participation was still minimal. These training programs had only created 124 licensed black pilots, seven held commercial pilot ratings, and only one was enlisted in the AAC.
Increased pressure to boost black enlistment continued and was lead by the NAACP, under A. Phillip Randolph, Robert Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier, David Ward Howe of the Chicago Defender, and the successor to Booker T. Washington and Robert Moton, Frederick D. Patterson, president of Tuskegee.
Finally their efforts paid off, when on September 16, 1940, White House Press Secretary Stephen Early announced the AAC would soon begin training black pilots. The training was supposed to create black organizations in each major branch of service, including aviation training as pilots, mechanics and technical specialists. Of course Jim Crow reigned supreme as Aviation Squadrons were still conceptualized to be all black, with all-black support units, and trained under racially segregated conditions.
In spite of these conditions, Tuskegee President Patterson lobbied tirelessly to have the program placed near his school. As a well-established hub of aviation, Tuskegee had already been one of the first to establish a CPT program and many of its alumni demonstrated remarkable success. Its seemingly endless amount of land provided an ideal place for pilot training. $1,663,057 later, the Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) was created and blacks from all over the country soon began making their way south to Tuskegee, Alabama.