The Tuskegee Airmen: The Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron’s Rise Above Traveling Exhibit Features the First Black Pilots in US Military History


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Stateside, the Tuskegee Airmen fought for the dignity and respect any serviceman deserves.  Their battle on the home front would become the fight for Civil Rights. (Office of Air Force History, Maxwell Air Force Base)

By Susan Cook

Many people associate the civil rights movement with the 1960s; however, the civil rights movement has a tradition stretching back into the early nineteenth century. The Tuskegee Airmen furthered this movement in the 1940s. These airmen showed courage and fought with honor while serving the United States Air Force during World War II, even though they had to fight for their opportunity. Their character and success challenged the long-held belief that blacks had little to offer the military. Their valor and bravery, along with the achievements of other black soldiers from World War II, led to the desegregation of the armed forces by President Truman in 1948.

Who were these Tuskegee Airmen? They were the first black pilots in United States military history. While running for his third presidential term, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to allow blacks to become military pilots. The War Department agreed on the condition that they were trained and served in segregated units. The first black flying unit was the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which was activated in March 1941 at Chanute Field, Illinois. It opened without pilots because they did not have any black pilots trained yet.

Training black pilots at the Tuskegee Institute made sense because Tuskegee was already training black civilian pilots. Tuskegee lobbied to get the contract for the training facility because they were a historically black college. This satisfied the condition that the pilots be trained in segregated units. The primary phase of training took place at Moton Field, which is now Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. The basic, advanced, and original transition training phases took place at Tuskegee Army Air Field, several miles from Moton Field. The flight instruction was designed to be extra difficult, with the hope the program would fail. Even with these challenges, this program graduated 992 black pilots

Not all Tuskegee Airmen were pilots. The term included the mechanics and ground support. These teams saw action throughout the world. The 99th Fighter Squadron deployed to North Africa, Sicily, and mainland Italy. These pilots showed great character in the face of adversity. The commander of the fighter group they were attached to tried to have them removed from combat. The War Department conducted a study to compare the performance of black and white pilots and found no significant difference. The Tuskegee Airmen went on to distinguish themselves in combat. In missions over Anzio, Italy, the 99th Fighter Squadron shot down more enemy airplanes that the other squadrons in the area.

So why are they called the Red Tails? The Tuskegee Airmen painted the tails of their fighter planes red. After proving themselves while escorting bombers, the bomber pilots began requesting the “red tail angels” to protect their missions. The Tuskegee Airmen flew over fifteen thousand combat sorties and were awarded hundreds of medals and commendations recognizing their courage and skill.

Tuskegee Airmen lived by a code of ethics that led them to success. People can incorporate these same ethics into their lives today in order to become the best they can be. The Tuskegee Airmen ethics included aim high, believe in yourself, use your brain, never quit, be ready to go, and expect to win. These men overcame unimaginable discrimination but worked hard to become one of the most decorated fighter squadrons in World War II.

Today the Commemorative Air Force educates Americans about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. This mission is done through the restored P51C Mustang and the Rise Above Traveling Exhibit. Educational materials are also available for schools. The Rise Above exhibit is a graphic-covered semitrailer that houses a curved IMAX movie screen and plays the Rise Above movie. The movie outlines the story of the brave young men and support personnel who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. These educational tools travel throughout the United States sharing this story with as many people as possible. The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a nonprofit organization that depends on the support of the public to continue their mission.

Homestead National Monument of America educates the public on the effects of the Homestead Act of 1862. This law was ahead of its time. As long as a person could become a United State citizen, they were able to file a homestead claim and receive 160 acres of land. It did not matter the color of skin or gender. As we know, the civil rights movement began in the nineteenth century, and the passing of the Homestead Act of 1862 furthered the cause for African American equality in the United States. Just as the Tuskegee Airmen conquered many challenges, homesteaders also overcame unimaginable trials and helped build our nation’s agricultural empire.


The Rise Above Traveling Exhibit can be seen at Homestead National Monument of America from August 28 to September 1, 2014. Schools can reserve a film time during August 28–29 by calling (402) 223-3514. The exhibit is open from 8:30-5:00 from August 30 to September 1. This exhibit is part of the Labor Day Weekend Living History & Arts Extravaganza. There are living history activities and hands-on activities for the whole family. This weekend is made possible through the generous support of the Hevelone Foundation, the Nebraska Arts Council, and Nebraska Cultural Endowment. There are events and programs throughout the year. For more information call (402) 223-3514 or visit

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