3 Women 'Red Tails' Left Out

A first lady, a civil rights icon and a pilot aided the Tuskegee Airmen, says Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Bethune, Roosevelt with Anderson, Brown (Library of Congress/Smithsonian/NPS)

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 Africans 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 -- 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.

With extraordinary foresight, she used her considerable authority to get Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Virginia State, North Carolina A&T, 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.

Beginning in 1939, Bethune advised the president that among all the disabilities black Americans suffered:

One of the sorest points among Negroes which I have encountered is the flagrant discrimination against Negroes in all the armed forces of the United States. Forthright action on your part to lessen discrimination and segregation and particularly in affording opportunities for the training of Negro pilots for the air corps would gain tremendous good will, perhaps even out of proportion to the significance of such action.

West Virginia State College became the first black school to establish an aviation program, and because of Bethune's efforts, it received its first military airplane in 1939.  It set a precedent that soon benefited the Tuskegee Institute, which received its authorization in October of that year.

Flying Through the Open Doors: Willa Beatrice Brown

Tuskegee Airmen Movies, Books and More

From Red Tails to the toy aisle, images of the iconic World War II soldiers are everywhere.