Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, April 6, 1949. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231])
2/11/2012 - MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- Much has been written about the Tuskegee Airmen and most recently a Hollywood movie, "Red Tails," was released to tell their story. But, there is an important part of their history that you won't see in the movie.
There were three women, whom without them, the Tuskegee Airmen may not have existed. Given the 2012 theme for African American History Month, "Black Women in American: Culture and History," it is fitting to share their stories with you.
Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt and Willa Beatrice Brown played vital parts in the integration of the pilot program as well as African-American's interest in aviation.
According to a Jan 25, 2012 post by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in The Root, Willa Beatrice Brown, one of two women in the all-black Challenger Air Pilots Association, was one of about 100 licensed, black pilots in the entire country and was also the first African-American woman to receive a commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.
Brown was a business woman with a love for aviation. She promoted the image of black aviators hoping to fight prejudice and increase opportunities for African Americans. Brown convinced black newspapers to cover air shows and other aspects of black aviation. She helped organize Chicago's National Airmen's Association of America, lobbied for federal funds to support Chicago's private Coffey School of Aviation and wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt about integrating America's aviation forces. Without her work, African-American interest in aviation may have floundered.
Mary McLeod Bethune, a famed educator and head of the National Council of Negro Women, used her authority as the only female member of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "black cabinet" and her close friendship to first lady Eleanor to lobby against segregation and for integrating the pilot program, the key of which was to get the government to open training programs on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities.
Due to her efforts, 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.
By 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt convinced the Rosenwald Fund to expand the pilot training program at Tuskegee. Early in the year, Roosevelt visited the Tuskegee Institute's Moton Airfield, asking the chief flight instructor, "Chief" Charles A. Anderson if he would take her flying. Despite extreme objections from the Secret Service, Roosevelt spent more than an 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.
Upon her return to Washington, Roosevelt lobbied her husband for integration of the country's aviation forces. According to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, in December 1942, the President issued Executive Order 9279 forcing all services to officially end restrictions placed on African Americans regarding military service. While change was slow, by the end of 1944 there were 700,000 African-Americans in the Army; 165,000 in the Navy; 5,000 in the Coast Guard; and 17,000 in the Marine Corps.
Also by the end of that year, more than 5,000 African-Americans were commissioned officers including Benjamin O. Davis, the first African-American general.
Three women, two black and one white, made a difference for integration.
Had it not been for the forward thinking of Mary McLeod Bethune, the persistent support of Willa Beatrice Brown and the non-prejudicial attitude of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Tuskegee Airmen may never have existed, the country would have lost some great history, and Hollywood would not have made a movie about them.