Featured document: Tuskegee Airmen

“Members of the 99th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Forces, famous all-Negro outfit, who are rapidly making themselves feared by enemy pilots, pose for a picture at the Anzio beachhead. In the foreground, head bared, is 1st Lt. Andrew Lane.” (NARA ID 520624)

At the start of World War II, African Americans serving in the Armed Forces were segregated into all-black units. They were also limited in the types of positions they could hold—blacks in the U.S. military did not fly planes.

On April 3, 1939, Congress passed legislation expanding the Army Air Corps (the precursor to today’s Air Force). Among the act’s provisions was the creation of training programs located at historically black colleges to prepare African Americans for Air Corps service.

On January 16, 1941, the War Department announced they were creating the 99th Pursuit Squadron. (Fighter planes were then called “pursuit planes,” hence the name Pursuit Squadron; during the war the term was replaced with “fighter squadron.”)

What made the 99th Pursuit Squadron different was that it was to be an all-black flying unit trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. War Department officials selected Tuskegee because it had an airfield and civilian pilot training program.

“Tuskegee Airmen” became the nickname for the World War II Army Air Forces units that were made up predominantly of African American pilots and maintenance crews.

Address of welcome to Army Air Corps cadets in front of Booker T. Washington Monument on the grounds of Tuskegee Institute, August 1941. (National Archives Identifier 531132)

From 1941 to 1946, nearly 1,000 African Americans completed training at the Tuskegee Institute as pilots, and many went on to serve with distinction during the war.

Despite their service to the country, the U.S. military remained segregated until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman signed an Executive Order desegregating the U.S. military.

On March 29, 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal. During the ceremony, President George W. Bush acknowledged the men for their contribution to winning the war and saluted them for their service to the nation.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen, a special exhibit will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from January 7, 2016, through March 2, 2016.

Pilots of a U.S. Army Air Forces Fighter Squadron, ca. February 1944. (National Archives Identifier 535763)

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