When historian Carter Woodson and minister Jesse Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, they not only documented and promoted achievements by black Americans, but they also laid the foundation for Black History Month. Today, 40 years after President Gerald Ford called on citizens to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history,” February is synonymous as a time to reflect and recognize these vast, often little known, achievements. Time
This year’s Black History Month theme, “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories,” got us thinking naturally about the pioneering military aviators known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Their former military base is now the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, a NPS property with interpretive exhibits commemorating the tremendous contributions of black military pilots in WWII.
“Before the first African American military pilots became known as the “Red Tails” they wore striped tails as they began their flight training in the Army’s PT-17 Stearman bi-plane. Their flying adventure started at Moton Field, in Tuskegee, Alabama, where the Army Air Corps began a military “experiment” to see if Negroes could be trained to fly combat aircraft. Tuskegee Institute was among six Historically Black Colleges selected by the U.S. Government to host the military flight school because of its excellent engineering program and successful Civilian Pilot Training Program.” (NPS)
As we read about the almost 1,000 pilots who trained there – people like Daniel “Chappie” James, the first African-American 4-Star General – our thoughts turned to other aviation pioneers who came before or were part of the “Tuskegee Experiment.”
Here are five who helped pave the way.
Alfred “Chief” Anderson
Known as the “father of black aviation,” Anderson was the only African-American in 1932 qualified to be a flight instructor or fly commercially. He is also credited as the first American to land an airplane in the Bahamas. Anderson developed a rigorous training program for black pilots during WWII as part of the Tuskegee Institute Flying School. As Chief Instructor, he took First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on an historic flight during her 1942 visit to Tuskegee. Learn more.
James Herman Banning
Born on an Oklahoma homestead in 1899, Banning set his sights on the sky at an early age. When no flight schools would take him, he found an instructor who taught him ‘on the sly’ and built a plane from accumulated parts. Flying his homebuilt aircraft, Banning earned his wings, becoming the first African-American to receive a pilot’s license from the U.S. Department of Commerce. He died in a plane crash at the hands of an unlicensed mechanic attempting an acrobatic stunt. Learn more.
Willa Beatrice Brown
Aviator, educator, and business owner, Brown was the first black woman to earn a private pilot’s license in the U.S., the first female officer in the Civil Air Patrol and the first to concurrently hold a mechanic’s and commercial pilot’s license. She studied with and later married Cornelius Coffey, a CFI and aviation mechanic at Chicago’s Harlem Airport. Together they established the Coffey School of Aeronautics to train black pilots and mechanics. Learn more.
Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman
Coleman is widely recognized as the first person of African American and Native American descent to hold an international pilot license, Coleman traveled to Paris in 1920 to learn how to fly. Returning to Europe in 1922, she received additional training to launch a career in exhibition flying. Coleman was a popular fixture on the barnstorming circuit before a fatal accident from the Curtis “Jenny” she had recently purchased ended her life. Learn more.
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
Only the fourth black graduate in the U.S. Military Academy’s history, General Davis followed his father’s illustrious career as a military officer and soon blazed a trail of his own. He was in the first class to complete Tuskegee’s flight training program and soon commanded the 99th Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group in WWII. The highly decorated Davis received numerous military awards for his outstanding combat record including the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross and became the first black general in the U.S. Air Force. After retirement, he served as director of civil aviation security and assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Learn more.
William Jenifer Powell
American engineer, soldier, civil aviator and author, Powell is credited with promoting aviation in the black community. Along with Bessie Coleman and James Banning, he is recognized as an aviation pioneer and a civil rights activist. He founded a school to train mechanics and pilots and published Black Wings, “a fictionalized account of his life to inspire others to enter aviation as pilots, engineers and mechanics and fill the air with black wings.” Learn more.
Photos of Tuskegee Airmen from the NPS website. Check out Von Hardesty’s excellent book “Black Wings: Courageous stories of African-Americans in Aviation and Space History.”