I was reading about the Tuskegee Airmen gathering this week in Washington, D.C., and got to thinking of Bessie Coleman.
She was the first female African American pilot and the first African American to get an international pilots license. Sadly she died at age 34 when she fell from her plane in 1926.
Coleman served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women.
"Because of Bessie Coleman," wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings (1934), "we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream."
Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African American had become a U.S. military pilot. African-American men had tried to become aerial observers during World War I, but were rejected.
(African American Eugene Bullard did serve with the Franco-American Lafayette Escadrille in WWI, but was not allowed to transfer to American military units as a pilot when the other American pilots were offered the chance.)
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces. The American military was racially segregated and the Tuskegee Airmen were subject to racial discrimination, both within and outside the army. Despite these adversities, they trained and flew with distinction.
In all, of the 996 pilots who trained in Tuskegee, Ala., from 1941 to 1946:
- approximately 445 were deployed overseas
- 150 Airmen lost their lives in accidents or combat
- 66 pilots killed in action or accidents
- 32 fell into captivity as prisoners of war
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt inspected the new flight program at Tuskegee in March 1941, and took a half-hour flight with African-American chief civilian instructor C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson.
She cheerfully said after landing, "Well, you can fly all right."