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)
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.