Serving at a time when the American Army was segregated, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American aviators in America. The 332nd Fighter Group and the 99th Pursuit Squadron were the only Black groups that fought in World War II and were considered highly successful despite facing discrimination in and out of the army.
Trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, they flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Their remarkable performance did not only earn them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses but eventually helped encourage the integration of the U.S. armed forces, according to History.
But for the vigorous efforts of Mary McLeod Bethune, the Tuskegee Airmen may not have existed. She played an immense role in the integration of the pilot program that helped get America its first Black military pilots. Born on July 10, 1875, to former slaves in South Carolina, Bethune longed for an education at an early age but being in the segregated South, she was denied school because she was Black.
When she was 11, she was able to attend school at a Presbyterian church but her hopes to become a missionary after graduating from seminary were dashed — also because of racism. No church wanted to support her missionary work, so she got married to Albertus Bethune and made up her mind to become an educator.
In 1904, she opened a boarding school in Florida to teach young women who also desired to have an education. The Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls was the only school of its kind that catered to African-American women on the East Coast, according to this report. The school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute to form Bethune-Cookman College In 1929, the report added. Being a woman who was strong in character, Bethune was able to get funding for her college from prominent people including the Rockefellers and James Gamble of Proctor & Gamble.
“She became very good friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. She was an adviser to four presidents — that’s unheard of. I don’t know that any other person has been able to do that since that time, but she did it,” Dr. Tasha Youmans, dean of Bethune-Cookman university library, said of Bethune to AccuWeather.
Becoming the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women to advocate for racial and gender equality, Bethune was also the only female member of Roosevelt’s influential “Black Cabinet.” She used that black cabinet position and her close friendship with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to lobby for the integration of the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program, with the aim that the program will be brought to the campuses of historically Black colleges and universities.
In fact, thanks to Bethune, West Virginia State College became the first Black school to adopt an aviation program and receive its first military airplane in 1939. “That precedent benefited the Tuskegee Institute, which was authorized the same later that year,” according to March Air Reserve Base.
Eleanor Roosevelt would persuade the Rosenwald Fund to expand the pilot training program at Tuskegee by 1941. That same year, Eleanor Roosevelt, who had become very much a part of the pilot training program, visited the Tuskegee Institute’s Moton Airfield. There, she asked the chief flight instructor, “Chief” Charles A. Anderson, if he would take her flying. Even though the Secret Service was against this, Eleanor Roosevelt spent over one hour flying over the Tuskegee airfield, which was possibly the first time a Black man had ever flown a plane with a White woman as his passenger, as stated by March Air Reserve Base.
After her visit to the Tuskegee Institute, Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied her husband for the integration of the country’s aviation forces. In December 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9279 “forcing all services to officially end restrictions placed on African Americans regarding military service.” This order helped lead to the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen. Tuskegee University earned the U.S. Army Air Corps contract to help train the first Black military aviators in America. Some 1,000 Black pilots were trained at Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946.
Actually, by the end of 1944, there were 700,000 African-Americans in the Army; 17,000 in the Marine Corps, 165,000 in the Navy; and 5,000 in the Coast Guard. And this is largely thanks to the hard work of educator and civil rights activist Bethune, alongside Eleanor Roosevelt. Bethune went on to champion democratic values until her death of a heart attack on May 18, 1955, at the age of 79.