Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Tuskegee Airmen and the Struggle for Civil Rights

by Andrew Billman 65th Air Base Wing Historian

Lajes Field, Azores -- Sleek red-tailed P-51 fighters, the 99th Fighter squadron, the 332nd Fighter Group--valiant men with air-combat prowess and a stellar combat record all come to mind with the mention of Tuskegee Airmen. But the Tuskegee story would be incomplete without addressing the experiences of the B-25 pilots, navigators, and bombardiers that comprised the 477th Bombardment Group (477 BG). While their 332nd brothers-in-arms bravely flew their P-51s to glory in the skies over Europe, the men of the 477th courageously fought another enemy at home - racism and discrimination.

From 1941 through 1946, 994 pilots graduated from Tuskegee Army Airfield and earned the wings they hoped would finally silence the racist critics who thought black men lacked the necessary skills and abilities to fly. At this time even more African-American men broke racial barriers and received training as navigators, bombardiers, gunners, mechanics, and ground crew at various bases spread across America. By the spring of 1945, they would come together at Freeman Field in Seymour, Indiana as the 477 BG under all-white leadership, as they prepared to enter the War in the Pacific. But they would not make history fighting the Japanese in the Pacific--their place in history was reserved for battling the forces of bigotry in the very country they were willing to defend with their lives.

A few of the 162 Tuskegee Airmen under arrest at Freeman Field April 1945

A few of the 162 Tuskegee Airmen under arrest at Freeman Field April 1945. (courtesy photo)
When the 477 BG arrived in Seymour, the African-American members of the group soon felt the sting of discrimination as many of the grocery stores in the community would not allow them to buy goods and only one restaurant in town would serve them. The Seymour Laundry took this treatment a step further as they refused service to black airmen, while, at the same time regularly laundering the clothes and bedding of German prisoners of war confined in the area. This maltreatment continued on base as the group's commanding officer, Col. Robert Selway, issued an order on April 1, 1945, segregating the officers clubs at Freeman Field.
A former dilapidated non-commissioned officers club was designated for the "black training personnel." Col. Selway attempted to circumvent Army regulations that maintained equal access to recreational facilities on post for all officers by categorizing all black officers in the group as "trainees." But the airmen saw this ploy for what it was and dubbed the run-down structure set aside as their officers club, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

In reaction to this intolerable situation, black officers refused to use "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and they began to formulate a non-violent plan to integrate the officers club on post. Under the leadership of Lt. Coleman A. Young (a future mayor of Detroit), small groups of men attempted to enter the club on the evening of April 5, 1945, only to be refused entry. Before the club had closed at the end of the night, 36 black officers had not only been refused service but had been placed under arrest in quarters. These consequences did not deter more persistent airmen, who, on the next night, attempted entry only to be refused; they joined their compatriots under arrest, now totaling 61 men. Col. Selway could not prove all these men had read the order and eventually had to release 58 men from custody and possible court-martial. Three men remained in custody, pending court-martial, accused of pushing a lieutenant placed at the door of the club to prevent access.

Col. Selway then issued Base Regulation 85-2, defining the segregated facilities and required all officers to sign a statement they had read and acknowledged the new regulation. This time 162 black officers had the courage to refuse their signatures on a document they knew to be unjust, and faced arrest and possible court-martial. These brave men were willing to put "Service before Self" in defense of justice, and in the face of an uncertain and possibly perilous future.

In the end, an Advisory Committee on Special Troop Policies was convened in Washington, D.C., that determined the regulations put into effect at Freeman Field were not in accord with existing Army regulations prohibiting separation of recreational facilities on the basis of race. Col. Selway was relieved of command on July 1, 1945, and Col. Benjamin O. Davis, a Tuskegee Airman, assumed command. Fifty years later, on Aug. 12, 1995, the Air Force vindicated all the courageous men who stood against the unlawful orders at Freeman Field. The Air Force ordered the removal of all letters of reprimand from the personnel records and overturned the one court-martial which resulted from the civil disobedience at Freeman Field. The Air Force also reinstated 2nd Lt. Roger C. Terry to all the rights, privileges, and property he lost as a result of the conviction.

The non-violent quest for civil rights for African-Americans did not begin in December 1955 on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The origins for civil disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement may be traced 10 years earlier to an Army Air Forces base in Indiana. Freeman Field became the site where Tuskegee Airmen took a firm, peaceful stand against the twin evils of racism and discrimination at home. While the 332nd fighter group brought honor and glory to Tuskegee Airmen as they fought against tyranny and racism in Europe, the Tuskegee Airmen that comprised the 477 BG exhibited the same courage, and became instrumental in the integration that would soon sweep throughout all of the armed forces of the United States. These heroic men provided the non-violent examples which translated years later into the fabric of the Civil Rights Movement and fundamentally changed American society as a whole.

TEXT and IMAGE CREDIT: The Official Web Site of Lajes Field

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