Research compiled by: Jack E., Jennifer C., Shaundra S.
African Americans have a long history in the military that stretches back beyond the Tuskegee Airmen of WWII. Black Americans have fought in every war in which the United States has participated. With every conflict came a new hope that blacks would emerge with an improved quality of life in America. They hoped to show their patriotism and prove their competence and bravery to whites. Despite valiant service, African Americans were repeatedly denied rights and respect even after risking their lives for their country.
“All-colored regiments” were used in the Civil War and were reorganized and used during the Indian Wars and the Spanish American War. These units were comprised of all-black troops led by white officers. During World War I, blacks were drafted disproportionately into service. Most of the 350,000 African American troops that were conscripted were placed in support roles. In comparison to the generally discriminatory attitude of the white population of the United States, white people in France were more appreciative of the service of the black soldiers. African Americans were awarded the Legion of Honor from the French government.
As a result of black soldiers’ service in WWI and pressure from civil rights groups, the Army began training black officers in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1917. When World War II broke out, black newspapers and activists pressured the government to utilize African Americans as pilots. The War Department eventually created the 99th Pursuit Squadron near Tuskegee, Alabama. They referred to it as “The Experiment” and the Tuskegee project was expected to fail.
By July of 1942 the Tuskegee Institute had commissioned 33 second lieutenants, but the group had to wait months to be shipped overseas. No white commander wanted an all-black squadron. Once again, black newspapers and the NAACP had to pressure the War Department. The Tuskegee Airmen were finally assigned to North Africa and later to Italy. In Italy, the airmen began escorting bombers into Germany and earned a reputation for never losing a bomber. The Tuskegee Airmen’s performance was later utilized as justification for the integration of the military in 1948. More than six decades after their service in WWII, the Tuskegee Airmen received the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.
Alfonza Davis Plaque at Great Plains Black History Museum