The Tuskegee Airmen



The issue of race in the military extends from colonial times to the present day.  Join Active Minds as we explore a chapter of this story from World War II: the Tuskegee Airmen.  This group of African American pilots were the first black military aviators in the U.S. armed forces.  We will tell their story of struggle and triumph and bring this issue into a current context. 

Key Lecture Points

  • African-Americans have served in the military during all of America’s wars since colonial times.  In 1939, as the US began to prepare for war, the government established flight programs at colleges around the nation to train men to fly, but not at black universities because many in the military did not believe blacks were capable of flying.  In response to mounting pressure from black newspapers, the NAACP and sympathetic government leaders, the program was extended to several black universities.  Later the Army Air Corps agreed to form an all-black fighter squadron as an “experiment.” In 1941 the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was selected as the location for the training of this new all black squadron.
  • As part of the “Tuskegee Experiment,” 12 cadets and one officer, Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., were the first African Americans to earn their wings in the US Army Air Corps.  These pilots and later graduates formed the 99th Pursuit Squadron.  The 99th fought with distinction in the Mediterranean Theater and later joined three additional black squadrons to form the 332nd Fighter Group.  The 332nd served with distinction in Europe, flying combat missions and escorting bombers.   996 pilots and more than 15,000 ground personnel served in the 332nd during WWII.  The Tuskegee Airmen are credited with 15,500 combat sorties earning more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses as well as many other honors.
  • In 1941 fewer than 4,000 African Americans were serving in the military and only 12 were officers.  By 1945, more than 1.2 million African Americans were in uniform (including thousands of African American women).
  • The Tuskegee Airmen fought a two front war—one against the Axis powers and one against racial discrimination.  By proving black men could fly and serve courageously in combat, the Tuskegee Airmen set the stage for the integration of the US military in 1948 and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the key factors that led to the decision to create a black fighter squadron in the U.S. Army Corps?
  • What barriers did the Tuskegee Airmen have to overcome?
  • Describe their impact on the Civil Rights Movement.

Reflective Question

  • If you served in the military, was it segregated at the time?  Do you remember when integration came to the military?  What do you remember most about those times?
  • Why do you think it took so long to integrate the military?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Beaver, Christine.  The Tuskegee Airmen. Webster’s Digital Services, 2011. 212 pages.  This book documents the Tuskegee Airmen, the planes they flew and the men who helped them get in the air.
    Click here to order
  • Moye, J. Todd.  Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of WWII. Oxford University Press, 2012.  241 pages. This book describes the challenges and triumphs of the Tuskegee Airmen as told in their own words.
    Click here to order