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Official U.S. Army Air Force Training Command photograph of 20 Tuskegee Airmen posing in front of a plane.
National Park Service photo, from Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

The Tuskegee Institute, established by Booker T. Washington in the 1880s in Tuskegee, Alabama, to educate African Americans, was the center for African American aviation during World War II and home to the Tuskegee Airmen. The few African Americans who learned to fly in the early 1900s were self-taught or trained oversees. In 1939, the U.S government passed the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) Act, authorizing selected schools, including the Tuskegee Institute, to provide basic training for black pilots in case of a national emergency. The following year, Tuskegee was authorized to teach advanced CPT courses. With the outbreak of World War II the U.S. military chose the Tuskegee Institute to train pilots for the war effort because Tuskegee had the facilities, engineering and technical instructors and a climate well suited for year round flying.

[photo] Hangar No. 1, Moton Field, Tuskegee Institute
National Park Service photo, from Museum Management Collection

Moton Field at the Tuskegee Institute was built between 1940 and 1942, and named for Robert Russa Moton, second president of Tuskegee Institute. The facility included two aircraft hangars, a control tower, locker building, clubhouse, wooden offices and storage buildings, brick storage buildings, and a vehicle maintenance area. Staff from Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama, provided assistance in selecting and mapping the site. Architect Edward C. Miller and engineer G. L. Washington designed many of the buildings. Archie A. Alexander, an engineer and contractor, oversaw construction of the flight school facilities. Tuskegee Institute laborers and skilled workers helped finish the field so that flight training could start on time. The Army Air Corps assigned officers to oversee the training at Tuskegee's Moton Field. They furnished cadets with textbooks, flying clothes, parachutes and mechanic suits. Tuskegee Institute, the civilian contractor, provided facilities for the aircraft and personnel, including quarters and a mess for the cadets, hangars and maintenance shops, and offices for Air Corps personnel, flight instructors, ground school instructors and mechanics. Tuskegee Institute was one of the very few American institutions to own, develop, and control facilities for military flight instruction.

Briefing of Tuskegee Airman, March 1945
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Photo by Toni Frissell

On July 19, 1941, the first class, which included Capt. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. began rigorous training in subjects such as meteorology, navigation and instruments. Successful cadets then transferred to the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field, built five miles away by the Army Air Corps, to complete their pilot training. More than 1,000 pilots were trained at the two fields to form one of the most highly respected U.S. fighter groups of World War II. Under the command of Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. the 332nd fighter group--comprised of the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd fighter squadrons--flew successful missions over Sicily, the Mediterranean and North Africa. The fight group was known to bomber crews as the "Red-Tail Angels" after the markings on their aircraft, or the "Black" or "Lonely Eagles," as well as the "Black Bird Men" by the German air force. The Tuskegee Airmen completed 15,000 sorties in approximately 1,500 missions, destroyed more than 260 enemy aircraft, sank one enemy destroyer and demolished numerous enemy installations. The Tuskegee Airmen were awarded many high honors, including Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, the Croix de Guerre and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. In 1945, the 332nd Fighter Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for "outstanding performance and extraordinary heroism." Having fought America's enemies abroad, the Tuskegee Airmen returned home to join the struggle for equality. The 477th Bombardment Group staged a peaceful protest for equal rights at Freeman Field, Indiana, in April 1945. The Tuskegee Airmen and the 10,000 African Americans that served as flight instructors, officers, bombardiers, navigators, radio technicians, mechanics, air traffic controllers, parachute riggers, electrical and communications specialists, laboratory assistants, cooks, musicians, and supply, fire fighting and transportation personnel, paved the way for full racial integration of the United States military. A portion of Moton Field was deeded to the city of Tuskegee for use as a municipal airport which is still in use today, while the remaining portions of the field and many of the associated buildings are currently being restored by the National Park Service. Nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field was closed after the war and is now used by a private hunting club.

The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service, is located at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. It is open 9:00am to 4:30pm, central time, excluding major holidays. Please call 334-724-0922 or visit the park's website for further information. For further information, visit the Legends of Tuskegee web exhibit produced by the National Park Service's Museum Management Program. The National Park Service also adminsters the nearby Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, which contains the original buildings of this institute and now forms the historic campus of Tuskegee University.


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