Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site commemorates and interprets the heroic actions of the Tuskegee Airmen from World War II, a story of patriotism in the face of fascism abroad and racism at home. The United States War Department’s “Tuskegee Experiment” (today known as the “Tuskegee Airmen Experience”) involved the recruitment of African American men and women to train and fight in the Army Air Corps in World War II in the face of discriminatory policies and conditions. Including over 16,000 air traffic controllers, bombardiers, flight instructors, mechanics, navigators, officers, pilots, radio technicians, weather forecasters, and more, the participants of the “Tuskegee Airmen Experience” are unique not just because of their large number, but because their numerous confrontations with racism motivated rather than hindered their mission. The fighter groups most closely associated with the Tuskegee Airmen, notably the 99th and 332nd, are considered among the most proficient Army Air Corps squadrons in World War II. This hard won reputation exemplifies their efforts to rise above prejudice and serve their country.
In 1939, schools and universities received government-sponsored support for developing flight-training programs through the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. Established to train civilians to be back-up pilots in the event of a national emergency, the CPT was open to African Americans and women. Tuskegee Institute was just one of eight African American schools CPT supported. Known as one of the nation’s best vocational schools for African Americans, Tuskegee Institute had a tradition of teaching skilled crafts and instilling a firm work ethic in its students. Before the enactment of the law authorizing the Civilian Pilot Training program, just six African Americans were commercially licensed pilots, but in just five years, Tuskegee Institute alone graduated 996 pilots. The program was originally limited to elementary training courses, but the Civilian Aeronautics Association, in July 1940, began providing government funds for advanced CPT courses propelling Tuskegee to the forefront of African American aviation training.
With arguably one of the country’s best aviation training programs and the Army Air Corps’ first ever effort to recruit African Americans, Tuskegee Institute quickly became the center of African American military pilots during World War II. The popularity of the program and additional government support for advanced training led the military to establish a segregated base, Tuskegee Army Air Field, to recruit and train African American pilots, primarily at Moton Field, today the location of Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. On July 19, 1941, the first class of pilots began rigorous training in such advanced subjects as meteorology, navigation, and instruments.
In 1936, future general Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. one of the 13 original Tuskegee cadets, became the first African American to graduate from West Point Military Academy since 1889. His later achievements as squadron commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group are celebrated as some of the most courageous Army Air Corps missions during World War II. Davis once led the 332nd on a 1,600-mile round-trip escort mission to Berlin. Awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for the mission, the Tuskegee Airmen did not lose a single bomber on that mission despite the superior German planes. Along with fellow Tuskegee Airmen such as Daniel “Chappie” James, the first African American 4-star general, Davis received recognition for extraordinary leadership and individual service.
Given the chance to fight for their country and to prove themselves intellectually and physically capable, the men and women at Tuskegee Army Air Field were able to bear the oppressive nature of Tuskegee Army Air Field's segregation policies where African Americans faced exclusion on every level. They were deprived of officer positions, excluded from specific areas of the base, and subject to abuse by white Tuskegee police and conflicts with white flight instructors. This racism defined these men and women’s existence and served to motivate them further. In December 1943, a new base commander instituted less discriminatory policies giving new confidence to the Tuskegee Airmen. The actions of the two most proficient Tuskegee squadrons, the 99th and 332nd, are evidence of this confidence and their competence.
The 99th squadron was initially controversial, because the squadron had many tours never firing upon an enemy and many more missions in which pilots never even saw an enemy plane. Because of the lack of action, the Tuskegee units received negative comments from the media about the pilots’ lack of aggression and success, reinforcing racial stereotypes of inferiority. An interrogation by the War Department Committee on Special Troop Policies with Lt. Col. Davis revealed that the combination of the lack of combat experience, small support staff, and fewer pilots to share the same amount of missions helped create the false image of an impotent unit. Launching a study of the African American units, top military officials came to recognize the Tuskegee squadron's above average ability. A subsequent series of successful combat missions for the 99th and the formation of the 332nd squadron forced many to reverse earlier racist sentiments.
Despite the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen, discrimination continued. In preparation for the 332nd squadron’s deployment, the squadron faced reassignment to various bases in the United States for training that adhered strictly to segregationist policies. At Selfridge Army Airfield in Michigan, nine officers from the 332nd became the first African Americans assigned to nonsegregated training, an almost unheard of breakdown of the race barrier. Simultaneously, however, the base commander banned all African American officers from the officer’s club violating Army Regulation 210-10 and nearly inciting a race riot. Similar violations occurred throughout the war that led to the eruption of violence. African American squadron leaders like Lt. Col. Davis had to become experts in compromise to protect their troops, retain morale, and focus on the task-at-hand.
Foreshadowing the integration of the Armed Forces, the Tuskegee Airmen were able to initiate a series of remarkable changes at Camp Patrick Henry, their base of direct deployment in Virginia. Arriving at the base, the 332nd discovered that its members were barred because of their race from places such as the movie theater, certain bathrooms, and various clubs. Lt. Col. Davis and the post commander settled the matter by integrating these facilities, which demonstrates the Tuskegee Airmen's success in overturning the mantra of “separate but equal” years before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The graduates and over 15,000 support crew completed more than 15,000 sorties, 1,500 missions, destroyed 262 German aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer, and received 916 marks of honor. For nearly all of these men and women, Moton Field was the start of it all. Providing basic and primary flight training for nearly one thousand African American pilots and ground training for many more, Moton Field leaves a legacy that continues to redefine American history. At the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site Visitor Center, visitors come face-to-face with the men and women of Moton Field through a series of captivating films examining different aspects of the Tuskegee Airmen’s story. Visitors can explore the Hanger #1 Museum and take ranger-led tours to various buildings at the site.
To preserve the memory of those involved in the Tuskegee Airmen Experience, the National Park Service launched a massive oral history project. Interviews with participants from all aspects of the experience create a fuller picture of the support behind the pilots and open a window into the discrimination they faced. The project is particularly important because of the age of many of the Tuskegee Airmen, who, because they were not given the opportunity to study aviation until later in life, are significantly older than are their white counterparts in World War II. This makes the oral histories that much more important.
Fighting the “Double V” campaign for victory against fascism abroad and racism at home, the Tuskegee Airmen are great American patriots not just because of their prowess in the skies. Their daring actions led President Truman to integrate the Armed Forces in 1948, and provided a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. At a time when some considered African Americans unfit even to operate heavy machinery, the Tuskegee Airmen destroyed racial stereotypes as they flew their way into American history.
Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 1616 Chappie James Ave. in Tuskegee, AL. The site is open daily from 9:00am to 4:30pm. The Hanger #1 Museum is available for scheduled tours Wednesday-Sunday at 11:00am, 1:00pm, and 3:00pm. The historic site is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. There are no admission fees. For more information, visit the National Park Service Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site website or call 334-724-0922. Visit the National Park Service Museum Management Program's virtual museum exhibit: Legends of Tuskegee.