Constant reminders that African Americans were inferior to white people marked towns and cities in the first half of the 20th century. Signs labeled “colored,” and “white” were highly visible by design, meant to constrict freedom based on the color of one’s skin. Heroically, many African American men and women refused to accept these labels, determined to prove their intelligence, strength, and fortitude by fighting for their right to fight. Ultimately, their battle focused on civil rights during and after World War II.
Most people are familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen. They are legendary.
In the Museum’s exhibit Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences During WWII, the exhibit centerpiece focuses on the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous Red Tails pilots whose incredible war exploits became a symbol of African-American participation in World War II. The Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance opened the exhibit on September 7, 2017. Speakers included former Tuskegee Airmen Flight Officer Robert T. McDaniel, Mrs. Erma Bonner-Platte, widow of Tuskegee Airmen instructor Claude Platte Jr., and Dr. J. Todd Moye, Professor of History at the University of North Texas.
Dr. Moye moderated a panel between McDaniel and Bonner-Platte which he began by providing historical background on the discrimination African Americans faced when attempting to enlist and/or serve in the armed forces.
“The title of the exhibit Fighting for the Right to Fight is not just rhetoric…African Americans had to fight for the right to serve their country in World War II in significant numbers and in significant roles,” said Dr. Moye. “The plan coming out of World War I based on supposedly scientific studies—of course we all know they are not scientific—purported to show that African Americans who had served in World War I did not have the leadership qualities, did not have equal intelligence to whites, could not be expected to serve as officers, certainly could not lead white troops, etc., etc.”
Segregation, upheld by the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), along with Jim Crow laws, restricted the civil liberties of African Americans in every sector of society, including the military. African Americans were rejected from serving in the Army Air Services during World War I. This racial discrimination fueled the NAACP and others to work for change in military policies.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential decree that allowed African Americans to join the war effort during World War II. After the decree, the U.S. Army Air Corps trained a limited number of black pilots in Tuskegee, Alabama. The 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Former Tuskegee Airmen Flight Officer Robert T. McDaniel attended I.M. Terrell High School in Texas and was drafted into the armed services in 1943. He was later accepted into the U.S. Army Air Corps.
“Of course, [the air force] didn’t really want black folks flying planes because they thought that they weren’t intelligent enough and that they didn’t have the dexterity to operate machines and everything as though you were different physically simply because you were the wrong color,” said McDaniel. “Well, we were not aware of this because we had outstanding teachers at my school.”
McDaniel’s drive, intelligence, and skills led him to surpass the benchmarks for acceptance into the air force as established by the U.S. War Department. McDaniel and Bonner-Platte’s husband, Claude Platte Jr., were two of the 922 pilots trained in Tuskegee, Alabama between 1941 and 1946.
The Tuskegee Airmen proved themselves to be some of the best pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Their first-rate skills and abilities earned them the respect of other bomber crews who often requested them as escorts. The Tuskegee Airmen had a much better record than bombers flown by white pilots.
The accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen showed the world that African Americans deserved more recognition and respect than they had received at home. The end of the war reinvigorated their desire for equality and catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement.
During the exhibit opening, a member of the audience asked McDaniel and Bonner-Platte what messages they might have for the next generation of students regarding their experiences during World War II.
“I want young people to know that they can do anything that any other person can do, with no exceptions, and that they shouldn’t let anyone discourage them from any occupation that they desire to pursue,” said McDaniel.
Bonner-Platte answered the question by recalling a story her husband had repeated many times. When he was a young boy, Platte looked in the air and saw an object flying overhead. He ran up to his father and asked what it was. His father explained it was an airplane, and the man he saw in it was a called a pilot. Platte knew immediately that that’s what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“His father said, ‘son, I’m sorry, but you can’t do that because you’re a negro and they don’t let negroes fly planes,” said Bonner-Platte. “[Claude’s] answer to his father was “I don’t care! When I get big, that’s what I want to be!”
Platte’s father encouraged his son’s passion for aviation by taking his family to Meacham field to watch the planes land and take off. Platte later found himself in Tuskegee in 1939 and joined the Tuskegee Airmen.
The tenacity and determination these men exhibited during a time of segregation, discrimination, and racial inequality serve as an incredible example of perseverance and inspiration for all ages.
-Janet Montealvo Hitt, Marketing Coordinator, Dallas Holocaust Museum