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)

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

The Tuskegee Airmen also owed a debt to Willa Beatrice Brown, one of two women in the all-black Challenger Air Pilots Association, founded in 1935. Brown was one of about 100 licensed black pilots in the entire country. She also became the first African-American woman to receive a commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.

An expert in business administration and public relations and a dedicated aviator, Brown played a critical role in promoting the image of black aviators to help fight racial prejudice and expand opportunities for all blacks. She became chair of the association’s education committee and appeared in the offices of the Chicago Defender, the famed black paper of the era, to convince the paper to cover the association’s air shows.

Enoch Waters, one of the paper’s editors, visited an air show and became so impressed with the talent he saw that the Defender became a sponsor of the association. The paper, because of Brown’s appeal, also began covering all aspects of black aviation, and soon other black papers followed suit, especially the influential Pittsburgh Courier.

Because several American black aviators had gone to fight the Italian fascists in Ethiopia in 1935, national interest in black pilots had increased. Brown exploited the growing fame of black pilots and helped organize Chicago’s National Airmen’s Association of America in 1937, which chartered branches across the country (except in the Deep South). Without Brown’s work, African-American interest in aviation could have languished.