Separate But Not Equal

Through much of American history, especially prior to the Civil Rights Movement that peaked in the 1960s, African Americans held secondary positions in nearly every walk of life. In education, housing, business and employment, if not always by public policy then by practice, opportunities were restricted. In aviation, they were no more welcome than in the rest of society. Hiring in commercial aviation was almost non-existent prior to 1960. Those few pioneers who became aviators prior to the Civil Rights Movement did so under circumstances that are hard to imagine today.

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The Tuskegee Airmen
The Tuskegee Airmen served primarily as air escorts protecting the heavy bombers of the Army Air Corps during WWII. For every pilot there were at least 10 black men and women on the ground in support roles including mechanics, medical technicians, administrative support and cooks. More than 10,000 black men and women served as vital support personnel.

To truly understand the significance of the Tuskegee Airmen, it is important to understand the battles they fought and the victories they won, not only against the enemy, but within the nation they served. It helps to remember America as it was, a great nation fighting for freedom but still denying equality to some of its citizens. Ironically the men fighting to defeat the monstrous regime of Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich, which was based upon racial superiority also had to battle racism back home and in the American Armed Forces in which they served. The battles they fought across the seas would be one of the steps in proving to their fellow citizens that they deserved equal treatment back home. The Tuskegee Airmen would be part of what was called the "Tuskegee Experiment." An experiment to prove that people of all colors and backgrounds could fight under the same flag for the same goals and emerge victorious in the end. The result was an enviable accomplishment that no other fighter group in the United States Army Air Corps would match. Tuskegee Airmen would not lose one single bomber they escorted to enemy aircraft fighter attacks.

At the war's end they had flown more than 15,000 missions and in the process destroyed more than 260 German aircraft in the air and on the ground. In addition they destroyed some 950 railcars, trucks and other vehicles. One of the Tuskegee Airmen could even lay claim to sinking a destroyer during one mission. America's black pilots would earn 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 8 Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars. Sixty-six pilots gave their lives while another 32 would become prisoners of war. As a result of the success of the Tuskegee Airmen, on July 26th, 1948 President Harry Truman signed Executive Order #9981 desegregating the American armed forces.

A conversation with Calvin Spann

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Desegregation of U.S. Military

1948 President Harry S. Truman orders desegregation of the U.S. military

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