The Tuskegee Airmen: African American War Heroes

The Tuskegee Airmen: African American War Heroes

During a time in America when Jim Crow laws were still in place in much of the country, the Tuskegee Airmen defeated all odds. Nearly 1,000 African American aviators successfully completed their training and entered the Army Air Corps before the end of segregation.

It may not surprise you that African Americans faced racial discrimination in the military during the 1940s. Blacks were widely considered unfit to serve based on key military leaders' presumptions that African American men lacked the intelligence, courage and patriotism to serve their country. While the U.S. Constitution guaranteed "equal protection of the laws for all persons," segregation was in full swing and The Supreme Court still allowed the "separate, but equal" treatment of Jim Crow laws. Harry S. Truman didn't desegregate the military until 1948, and Rosa Parks wouldn't refuse to give up her seat to a white passenger for another seven years after that. In this social climate, it's amazing that these airmen were able to do what they did.

In 1941, when fewer than 4,000 African Americans were serving in the military, the army decided to train a small number of black pilot cadets to help out in World War II. Dr. Frederick D. Patterson brought the first African American flight training program to a segregated air base in Tuskegee, Alabama. Soon, the Tuskegee Airmen, as they were called, were using their flying skills escorting and protecting American bombers from German fighter planes. They flew more than 15,000 sorties between 1943 and 1945.

The Tuskegee Airmen saw many successes and a few defeats. Only 66 of them died in combat—one of the lowest loss records for any escort fighter group. In all, they earned eight Purple Hearts, fourteen Bronze Stars, three Distinguished Unit Citations, and 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses by the end of the war. The success of the Tuskegee Airmen proved to the American public that African Americans, when given the opportunity, could effectively serve their country. The bravery and patriotism of these men set the stage for the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s. Uncover the achievements of these accomplished servicemen in the following videos.

The Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen hold an important place in U.S. military history. Learn how they received so many awards in the video below.

01:31

from Smithsonian Channel

The Tuskegee Red-Tail Angels

Who were the Red-Tail Angels, and why do they hold such importance in American history? Find out in the video below.

02:38

from Smithsonian Channel

Jackie Robinson In The Military

Celebrated American athlete Jackie Robinson faced segregation and chastisement when he joined the military. Hear his story in the following video.

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