History and U: Patterson and the Tuskegee Airmen


The Tuskegee Airmen are one of the most well-known fighting groups to have come out of WWII. Some of their many distinctions include flying more than 1,500 combat missions, destroying more than 300 enemy aircrafts and sinking one destroyer.

Made up of primarily flyers from the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th bombardment group, the Tuskegee airmen would claim three military distinguished unit citations, eight Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars and one Silver Star.

To add to the long list of accomplishments, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first black aviators in the Armed Services in a time when Jim Crow dominated the public.

During the months of 1940, America watched with an eerie eye over what was going on “over there” in Europe. Hitler and powerful German army made great pushes west and countries began to fall. Things were beginning to look better for the nation during those months. The Great Depression appeared to be fading away and better days seemed ahead. A sense of optimism struck the nation. One group that had a good deal of hope was the African Americans.

Having a newfound sense of opportunity derived from the realization of inequality, many African Americans began to attempt to achieve full equality as American citizens. One of the most discriminating sectors of the government was in the military. Not much had changed for many black soldiers, in a fundamental sense, since the days of the bloody Civil War.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sensed disenchantment within the black community. Many of his New Deal policies brought upon discrimination directly and indirectly.

In hoping to save his relationship with the black community Roosevelt called for official announcements claiming that all blacks would be treated as equals within the “new army.” Yet, many black leaders were not convinced with the President and called for a meeting with his top military advisers. Thanks to the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR agreed to hold such a meeting.

On Sept. 27, 1940 prominent black leaders in the form of A. Philip Randolph and T. Arnold Hill met with Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Assistant Secretary of War Robert Porter Patterson, who 28 years earlier received a diploma from Union in the great city of Schenectady.

Secretary of War Henry Stimson did not attend. He claimed he had too many other tasks to deal with, but later on admitted that the “black race” was not fit to lead.

Patterson was somewhat known to be kind to the black community and one black dean of an institution asked Patterson for financial aid after hearing “(Patterson) was friendly to (his) race.”

The black officials called for the desegregation of Northern military groups. Patterson, working on behalf of the opinions of the president, informed the men that the army was under a lot of pressure and making such arrangements would prove difficult. He did inform the men that due to lack of qualified pilots, the air force would be opening to anyone who they saw fit for service.

After the meeting, Patterson reported back to Roosevelt, and was informed by the President that he wanted progress, but that such measures could not be taken at the present time.

Nevertheless, the army took small steps in dealing with the problem of race in their ranks. Patterson shared the thought with many high ranking men that if a radical stance was taken, it could greatly hinder the building of an army and its deployment during a conflict. Patterson did favor the equality for black enlisted men.

When told of the slow response to activate black reserve officers, Patterson informed the assistant chief of staff that the activation of black officers must be made as rapidly and equally as their white counterparts.

Toward the end of 1940, the establishment of a military training base for black pilots in Tuskegee, Ala., was in the works. The project was the brain child of Patterson and Judge William Hastie, who was a black man working as a civilian secretary to Stimson. On Jan. 16, 1941, the White House announced it would officially begin plans of building a training base in Alabama. The question arose as to whom should do the designing and building. Patterson was given much control of the project and to the disapproval of many government officials, hired a black designer named Hilyard Robison to create the blue prints and gave the construction duty to a black company headed by Calvin McKissack.

The company proved to be beyond capable and Patterson was pleased with their work. Patterson’s willingness to help advance the black community made him the go-to man for black leaders to contact when they were in need. With the opening of the Tuskegee Air Base and the achievements made by the fighter pilots, Patterson helped slightly change the government’s and the public’s stance on race.

I would like to offer deep condolences to the Patterson family on their loss of Robert Porter Patterson, Jr., who passed away late April.


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