Like so many others in the late 1930s, the young black Americans who would become known as the Tuskegee Airmen were full of patriotic zeal and eager to serve in the military as the war in Europe and Asia intensified. What set them apart was that they wanted to fight the enemy from the air as pilots, something that black people had never been allowed to do before. Many applied to U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) flight training program, but all were initially rejected because of the color of their skin – all branches of the U.S. military were deeply segregated.


Major James A. Ellison returns the salute of Mac Ross, as he reviews the first class of Tuskegee cadets; flight line at U.S. Army Air Corps basic and advanced flying school, with Vultee BT-13 trainers in the background, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1941

In 1940, under pressure from black activists, the press, other political groups and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the USAAC reversed its position on accepting black flight program applicants. However, the brass was not fully committed to this change and anticipated that the program would fail spectacularly. The Army’s decisions about blacks in its ranks were still influenced by a 1925 Army War College report called The Use of Negro Manpower in War. The 67-page report was full of cruel and untrue generalizations about the behavior of black men during wartime and the black race in general.

The new program’s cadets were determined to create a record of excellence during their training and future war service so there could be no doubt about their value as patriots and aviators.

The Airmen: A Brief Photo Gallery