Three women 'Red Tails' left out of its story

Henry Louis Gates Jr. | 2/1/2012, 8:59 a.m.
Gov. Deval Patrick greets members of the New England chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen at the Museum of African...
Gov. Deval Patrick greets members of the New England chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen at the Museum of African American History’s Tribute to Living Legends, held June 10, 2009 at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In addition to the governor and the airmen, Harvard Law School Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. was also honored at the tribute ceremony. Craig Bailey/Perspective

“Red Tails,” the new George Lucas film depicting the valiant Tuskegee Airmen, reminds us of the often overlooked role of African Americans in World War II and their noble achievements. While much has been written about the airmen, very few of us understand how important three women were to their existence. And this is one crucial historical element that Lucas left out.

Since the Civil War, the United States had maintained a Jim Crow Army. While the Navy never deviated from integration, the Army (the Air Force did not become a separate service until after the war) rigidly segregated African Americans into separate units. While African Americans might be effective soldiers, the Army War College in 1925 maintained that “in the process of evolution, the American Negro has not progressed as far as the other subspecies of the human family.” (“Red Tails” opens with a quote from this report.) Blacks, it held, were neither smart enough nor physically strong enough nor brave enough to endure the demands of combat, let alone flight.

Although African Americans had valiantly served in the Civil War, on the frontier in the Indian Wars, in the Spanish American War and in World War I, white politicians and military officers still publicly professed to doubt black ability and patriotism, as part of the ideology and propaganda that undergirded Jim Crow in all of its pernicious forms. The crucial change came in 1938, primarily because of the efforts of an African American woman, Mary McLeod Bethune, who saw, before most other black leaders, a way to break the hold of racism on black participation in the military, by striking at the most resistant obstacle of all: the integration of the pilot program.

Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt Open Doors

Bethune’s struggle to get African Americans into pilot-training programs began in 1938 with the New Deal’s Civilian Pilot Training Program. The program was modestly funded by the National Youth Administration (NYA) — an important point, because Bethune headed the “Negro Section” of the NYA. She was also the only female member of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “black cabinet” and a close friend of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Bethune, a famed educator and head of the National Council of Negro Women, proved a relentless advocate for black equality and lobbied President Roosevelt to resist the demands of the Southern wing of the Democratic Party, which was hell-bent on maintaining segregation, especially in the military. Since the program’s goal was to train 20,000 college students a year as civilian pilots, the key to integrating the U.S. Army’s Air Corps during the coming war, Bethune realized, was getting the government to open training programs on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities.

With extraordinary foresight, she used her considerable authority to get Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Virginia State, North Carolina AandT, Delaware State, West Virginia State and Howard University included among the colleges and universities chosen as sites for pilot training. Without this crucial intervention, there would have been no Tuskegee Airmen.