In the United States of America, the month of February is Black History Month. It is a time to remember the achievements of men and women of color made throughout the history of this country. From a time of slavery to a time of freedom that did not really feel all that free, to a movement that would change the nation forever, men and women of color have played key roles in making a better quality of life for all mankind.
The Wright brothers took their first flight in 1903. Six short years later, in 1909, the United States military began using airplanes, with World War I was the first major conflict to significantly utilize aircraft. However, in the United States, the honor and privilege of flying a plane was reserved only for white males. It was not the only limitation placed on African-Americans in the military. Many top officials believed that African-Americans were too uneducated, untrainable, and unreliable for many positions within the military.
But African-Americans were not to be deterred. In 1917, several African-American males attempted to become aerial observers, however their request was rejected. For the next two decades, African-Americans advocated for the right to enlist and train as military aviators, with little success. In 1939, Congress finally passed a bill which designated funding for the training of African-American pilots, albeit in civilian flight schools. Per tradition, however, black men were trained separately from their white counterparts. One of these schools was at the Tuskegee University, a private, black university started by Booker T. Washington in the late 1800s, and located in Tuskegee, Alabama.
When the United States entered World War II, they were in need of pilots, and the first all-black flying unit was created - the 99th Pursuit Squadron, with 47 officers and 429 enlisted personnel. The military continued to insist upon strict selective policies to ensure that only the best and brightest of African-Americans were permitted to fly. Even with these restrictions, the Army Air Corps (later the United States Air Force) received and abundance of qualified applicants, including many who had participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee.
Over the next several years, the Tuskegee Army Air Field would continue to grow and expand, eventually becoming the only location to perform all three phases of pilot training. Unfortunately, despite the success of the program, those who completed the training were often not assigned potions, as some officers felt that it was inappropriate to have African-American officers serving over white enlisted men.
The 99th was considered combat ready in April of 1943, and was sent to North Africa to join the 33rd Fighter Group. The first combat mission for the 99th occurred on June 2, 1943. They were to join an attack on a strategic island in the Mediterranean Sea. The mission was a rousing success, taking the island!
By the end of February 1944, more graduates from Tuskegee were ready for combat missions and the all-black 332nd Fighter Group was sent overseas with three fighter squadrons: the 100th, 301st, and 302nd. All members of the group, from the pilots to the mechanics, to the administrative clerks, to the control tower operators, were African-American personnel. The 332nd would be joined by the 99th at Ramitelli Airfield in Italy, giving it four fighter squadrons. The 332nd was to provide flying escort for heavy bombers. The unit’s aircraft were identified by a crimson marking to the tail of the aircraft, earning the airmen the nicknames of “Red Tails” or “Red-Tail Angels.”
Throughout the war, the Tuskegee Airmen earned three Distinguished Unit Citations. One of these Citations was earned for the longest bomber escort mission. The group escorted bombers over 1,600 miles into Germany and back, to destroy a massive enemy tank factory, which was heavily defended by the German air force. Individually, pilots in the 332nd accumulated a total of 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses for missions all over Italy and occupied parts of central and southern Europe. Pilots in the 99th also set a record from destroying five enemy aircraft within four minutes.
There were a total of 992 pilots trained at Tuskegee between 1941 and 1946. Of the 992 graduates, more than 350 were sent overseas, where 84 lost their lives, including 32 who were captured as prisoners of war. The Tuskegee Airmen were credited with flying 1,578 combat missions and 179 bomber escort missions. They only lost a total of 27 bombers that they were escorting, on seven different missions. Other (white) bomber escort groups lost an average of 46 bombers during the same period. The Tuskegee Airman destroyed 112 enemy aircraft in the air and another 150 on the ground. Additionally, they put a destroyer class ship out of action and destroyed a total of 40 other boats and barges. Pilots in the 332nd also earned various other accommodations, including at least one Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, and 8 Purple Hearts.
There was no doubt that the Tuskegee Airmen were some of the best pilots during the war, with bombers often requesting the 332nd as their escort, however these brave men continued to face racism at home and from other units, both during and after the war. But they continued to demonstrate their enviable skills as pilots. In 1949, four of the pilots from the 332nd Fighter Wing participated in the annual US Continental Gunnery Meet in Las Vegas, Nevada, which required shooting aerial targets, ground targets and dropping bombs on ground targets. The group took first place with a perfect score; they did not miss a single target!
When military segregation was ended in 1948, by President Harry Truman, the veteran Tuskegee Airmen found themselves in high demand, both in the military and civilian world. Additionally, the Air Force required that those still serving be reassigned to formerly all-white units, based on their qualifications.
The Tuskegee Airmen set out to prove that they could fly just as well as their white counterparts - the Tuskegee Airmen ended up proving they could fly better! After the war, some Tuskegee Airmen continued to work in aviation and the military.
Click here to read some of the notable achievements by the Tuskegee Airmen.
Notable Achievements by Tuskegee Airmen
Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., who was a lieutenant when he flew as a member of the 99th during the war, became the first African-American to become a four-star general.
Marion Rodgers, also a member of the 99th during the war, went on to work for NORAD and was a program developer for the Apollo 13 project.
Lucius Theus, an aviator, stayed in the military, rising to the rank of major general. During his time, he worked to implement a direct deposit system for service members.
C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson was the first African-American to receive a commercial pilots certificate in 1932, and the first to make a transcontinental flight. He also flew Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt) when she visited the Tuskegee air base.
Captain William A. Campbell was the only Tuskegee Airman to earn two Distinguished Flying Crosses. He became the Group Commander of the 322nd after the war and remained in the military throughout the Vietnam War and Korean Conflict. He retired as a full Colonel.
Joseph D. Elsberry shot down three enemy aircraft during one escort mission, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. He was the first Tuskegee Airman to shoot down three enemy aircraft in one day.
Captain Alva Temple, Lieutenant Harry Stewart, Lieutenant James Harvey III, and Lieutenant Herbert Alexander where the four pilots who participated in the US Continental Gunner Meet in Las Vegas, Nevada. They missed none of their targets and took first place in the conventional fighter class.
Charles E. McGee remained in the military throughout Korea and Vietnam, flying a total of 408 fighter combat missions, the most of any Tuskegee Airman. He would retired from the Air Force as a Colonel, having received numerous medals for his service.
Percy Sutton left the military after World War II, and went on to graduated from law school. He became a nationally recognized civil rights attorney and represented Malcolm X. He later co-founded Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, which grew to include 19 stations.
Second Lieutenant Wendell Oliver Pruitt is credited with disabling a German destroyer and shooting down three names planes. He was a formidable fighter pilot, especially when paired with Lieutenant Colonel Lee A. Archer, Jr. Together, the two were nicknamed the “Gruesome Twosome.”
Every February, children throughout the United States are taught the story of Rosa Parks, the black women who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white person. Her refusal, her determination to make a stand - or in this case, take a seat - for equal rights led to a cascade of events. Rosa’s stand - seat - is inspirational, but did you know that she was not the first to refuse to give up her seat?
In fact, Rosa’s lawsuit was not even the one which eventually led to the desegregation of buses. It was the lawsuit of Browder v. Gayle, a federal lawsuit which led to the Alabama being ordered, first by a district court, then by the Supreme Court of the United States, to desegregate the bus system, as segregation violated the 14th Amendment right to protection for equal treatment.
Approximately two months after Rosa began her lawsuit against the state of Alabama, civil rights activists became concerned. Rosa’s lawsuit was likely to be stalled through appeals in state courts. While the bus boycott was going strong, activists knew that they would not be able to sustain the boycott for years, thus they sought a way to take a segregation case to the federal courts.
Fred Gray (a black, civil rights lawyer), E.D. Nixon (president of the NAACP in Montgomery), and Clifford Durr (a white lawyer and civil rights activists) began researching how to bring a case to federal courts. Five women were approached: Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder Coleman, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanette Reese. All these women had been refused to give up their seats on a bus and faced discrimination. They agreed to be plaintiffs in a federal civil action lawsuit, allowing them to bypass the Alabama court system.
Browder v. Gayle was filed in US District Court on February 1, 1956. On June 13, 1956, the District Court ruled “the enforced segregation of black and white passengers on motor buses operating in the City of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States.” On November 13, 1956, the District Court’s ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court also ordered the state of Alabama to desegregate their buses. On December 20, W.A. Gayle, mayor of Montgomery was handed an official notice by federal marshals to desegregate the buses.
The lawsuit was named for Aurelia Browder Coleman, who was 35 when she refused to give up her seat, seven months before Rosa. (Read more about Aurelia here) Claudette Colvin was another well-known participant in the lawsuit. She was just 15, compared to 42-year-old Rosa, when she refused to give up her seat. Claudette was ultimately thought to be too young to build a lawsuit around, and she was also considered a bit of a trouble maker; she was and unwed teenager who was pregnant. (Read more about Claudette here) Mary Louise Smith was 18 when she took her seat in protest. She was also though to be too young, and there were rumors that her father was an alcoholic. (Read more about Mary here) Susie McDonald and Jeanette Reese also participated in the lawsuit, although Jeanette quickly withdrew from the Browder v. Gayle due to pressure from the white community. (Sadly, there is little additional information available about Susie and Jeanette)
Without all these brave women - Rosa, Aurelia, Claudette, Mary, Susie, and Jeanette - who knows what history may look like today. During the month of February, Black History Month, it is important to look back at incidents such as these. As uncomfortable as remembering these events may be, they are party of our history as Americans. To move forward in the present, we must remember the past, but not dwell int it, and, if possible, right the wrongs that have been made.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her grandparents, both former slaves, took in Rosa and her mother after her mother divorced her father. From a young age, her grandparents instilled in her a belief of racial equality, however, Rosa grew up surrounded by racial discrimination. A standout moment in her childhood was her grandfather standing in front of the their home with a shotgun, while members of the Ku Klux Klan marched down the street.
Rosa was educated in a segregated one-room schoolhouse, to which she was forced to walk, while the white children were taken by buses to a newer school building. It was through buses that Rosa began to realize “there was a black world and a white world.” Rosa began attending a laboratory school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for secondary education, but never completed her studies. She left to care for her ailing grandparents and mother.
Rosa McCauley became the more well-known Rosa Parks in 1932, when she married Raymond Parks, a barber and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Even within the NAACP, Rosa continued to face discriminate, not for the color of her skin, but for her sex. Rosa was the only women in the Montgomery chapter and the sectary for E.D. Nixon, who claimed “Women don’t need to nowhere but in the kitchen.” When Rosa questioned him about her position, he said, “I need a secretary and you are a good one.” Through her work with the NAACP, Rosa was exposed to, and researched for, the legal problems of black men and women, such as the Scottsboro Boys, the rape of Recy Taylor, and the murder of Emmett Till.
By December 1, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama had passed a city ordinance segregating bus passengers by race. Specific rows of seats were reserved for whites only, designated by a sign on the bus, which drivers could move or remove altogether. Over time, drivers adopted the practice of moving the sign if the whites only section filled up. Blacks were to move and give up their seats to the whites, even if it meant they had to stand.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa went to work, as usual. Her day was relatively normal, until her bus ride home. Rosa boarded the bus, paid her fare, and sat in the first row of the designated “colored” section of the bus. After several stops, the whites section had been filled, so the bus driver, James F. Blake, with whom Rosa had previously had a verbal altercation, moved the sign indicating where colored people could sit, back several rows. The moving of the sign meant that four black individuals, including Rosa, were now in the designated white section. The driver ordered them to move. Three of the passengers gave up their seats. Rosa moved too. Only she moved from her aisle to seat, to a window seat!
The murder of Emmett Till had a profound impact on Rosa and it was him that she thought of that day when she refused to move back into the newly designated “colored” section. The driver questioned Rosa as to why she did not move. Rosa responded “I don't think I should have to stand up.” When Blake threatened to call the police, Rosa stated, “You may do that.” Rosa said, many years later, that she had decided that, “I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and citizen.” In her autobiography she also clarified what she felt that day. Many have assumed she was simply tired that day and did not want to stand. Rosa says, “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day…No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Rosa was arrested and charged with violating segregation laws. She was bailed out by Edgar Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and a white friend, Clifford Durr. Rosa’s arrested spurred the Women’s Political Council into action. Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson stayed up all night to created 35,000 handbills announcing the bus boycott.
On December 5, 1955, the bus boycott began. It rained, but the black community persevered. A new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the time a relative unknown, was established to lead the boycott effort, which lasted for 381 days. During that time city buses stood idle and the city severely suffered financially from the boycott.
The NAACP decided that Rosa was the ideal plaintiff for a test case against the city and state segregation laws. Several women before Rosa had also refused to give up their seats on public buses, however Rosa was chosen because she was a responsible, mature women who maintained a good reputation. She was also securely married and employed, had political awareness, and carried herself in a quiet and dignified manner.
While Rosa’s lawsuit made it way through the state courts, another lawsuit Browder v. Gayle made its way through the federal courts to, eventually, the Supreme Court of the United States. In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of public buses was unconstitutional. Rosa did not participate in the Browder lawsuit, as there was fear that she was be accused of attempting to circumvent the Alabama state court system.
Although an icon for the Civil Rights movement, Rosa’s life was anything but peaceful. She was fired from her department store job, her husband quit his job after his boss prohibited him from mentioning his wife, and the couple constantly received death threats. In 1957, Rosa and her husband moved to Hampton, Virginia, before moving with her mother to Detroit, to be with her brother and sister-in-law. In Detroit, Rosa noted that housing, school, and service segregation continued to exist.
Rosa remained politically active, supporting the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches, various freedom organizations, desegregation at all levels, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. She also became the secretary for State Representative John Conyers, a position she remained in until she retired in 1988. Rosa also continued with her activism work, donating nearly all money she made from speaking and appearances.
In the decade of 1970, Rosa lost her husband, brother, and mother to various illnesses. It was a difficult time for her, although she continued to work on various projects and served on the Board of Advocates of Planned Parenthood. Rosa began to slow as she aged and limited her activities.
Rosa died of natural causes on October 24, 2005, in her Detroit apartment. She was 92 years of age. After her death, she was afforded the honor of lying in state at the Capitol rotunda. She was the first non-government official, the first women, and the second black individual. The then-current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke at Rosa’s memorial, noting that if it hadn’t been for Rosa’s stand - sit - she would likely have never been able to achieve the position she held. Rosa was buried along side husband and mother.
On December 1, 1955, a woman, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white person. This act ignited a spark in the American Civil Rights movement, leading to boycotts of the busses and demands to an end of racial segregation. But everyone knows about Rosa Parks and her famous refusal! But, do you know about the woman who came before Rosa? About the other women who refused to give up their seats?
Mary Louise Smith was born in 1937, to a Catholic family in Montgomery, Alabama. During her childhood, she attended and graduated from St. Jude Educational Institute. On October 21, 1955, at the age of 18, Mary was returning home by way of the Montgomery city bus. At a stop after Mary had boarded and seated, a white passenger boarded. There was no place for the white passenger to sit. Mary was order to relinquish her seat. She refused. Mary was arrested and charged with failure to obey segregation orders and given a nine dollar fine, which her father paid.
Like Claudette Colvin, Mary was considered and rejected as the person to build a lawsuit around against segregation of city buses. She was rejected in part for her age, which was thought to be too young, but also because of a rumor that her father was alcoholic. Until the Browder v. Gayle lawsuit, Mary’s arrest, and the incident which led to her arrest, were kept quiet, known only to family and neighbors.
Mary’s civil rights activities did not end with her stand - sit - on the bus. She, along with her sister and their children, were part of a class action law suit for the desegregation of the Montgomery YMCA. Mary also participated in the March on Washington in 1963, and the march, led by Marin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, for equal voting rights.
Mary was proud of her actions that day, just as she was proud of the action of Rosa Parks, the woman whose stand - sit - spearheaded the bus boycott. Mary was also proud of what she was able to help accomplish for the civil rights movement. In 2005, Mary attended Rosa’s funeral saying, “I had to pay by tribute to her. She was our role model.”
During the month of February, Black History Month, we must remember to look back at incidents such as these. As uncomfortable as remembering these events may be, they are part of our history as Americans. To move forward in the present, we must remember the past, but not dwell in it, and, if possible, right the wrongs that have been made.