“At a time when some considered African Americans unfit even to operate heavy machinery, the Tuskegee Airmen shattered stereotypes, performing their duties with skill, determination and valor,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.
Despite their outstanding service records, the Tuskegee Airmen faced racism and bigotry. “In truth, they fought two wars: one overseas against a military enemy and another here at home against segregation and discrimination,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.
He awarded a scroll to the Tuskegee Airmen Scholarship Foundation, which provides college scholarships to financially disadvantaged and deserving students.
The Foundation’s executive director, Edward Grice, said, “The Tuskegee Airmen are not just black heroes, they are American heroes, American patriots. They fought gallantly for the ideals of freedom and demonstrated outstanding courage and valor in the face of unbeatable odds.”
“The Tuskegee Airmen defied the stereotypes that others placed on them and proved that dedication and commitment are the true characteristics of success — not race,” he said. “They stand as living testaments to the triumph of good over evil and represent the genuine qualities necessary for true greatness.”
In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Army Air Corps to form a segregated flying unit, comprised only of African Americans. About 16,000 men and women trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to become air traffic controllers, bombardiers, flight instructors, mechanics, navigators, officers, radio technicians, weather forecasters, instructors and maintenance and support staff.
The first black flying unit was activated on March 22, 1941, and the first black pilots were inducted on March 7, 1942. Overall, 992 pilots graduated at Tuskegee Army Air Field from 1942 through 1946, and they flew more than 15,000 combat sorties and 1,200 missions. Among their achievements: 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 31 Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars.
In 1948, President Harry Truman enacted Executive Order 9981, mandating equality of treatment and opportunity in the U.S. Armed Forces, which helped end racial segregation in the military and became a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.