The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-Americans to take to the skies as military pilots, and Western Pennsylvania’s contribution to the group was significant. More than 80 men came from here, including 17 from the Hill District, 16 from Homewood, seven from Sewickley and four from the North Side.
Like countless other Americans, Tuskegee Airmen served with distinction in World War II. What sets them apart is this: Even as they fought and died in the air over Europe, they confronted prejudice at home.
On March 24, 1945, Tuskegee Airmen escorted an Allied bomber group deep into Germany. Their target was a heavily defended tank factory in Berlin. At this point in the war, the Luftwaffe’s arsenal included the first jet fighter to enter combat. The formidable German Me 262 flew twice as fast as the P-51 Mustang flown by the Americans.
Still, the Tuskegee Airmen, led by Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., shot down three of the German jets. For its efforts that day, the all-black 332nd Fighter Group earned a Distinguished Unit Citation.
Less than two weeks later, another group of Tuskegee Airmen fought a different type of battle in the United States. At Freeman Field near Seymour, Ind., the commanding officer, Col. Robert Selway, issued an order segregating the base’s officers clubs. Selway established an all-white club and confined black officers to a run-down facility dubbed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
It was just one in a long list of indignities suffered by the black airmen. Grocery stores in Seymour refused to sell to African-Americans. A laundry in town refused service to blacks, yet laundered the clothes of German prisoners of war being confined in the area.
Enough was enough. On April 5, 1945, Tuskegee Airmen began a non-violent effort at integration by attempting to enter the all-white officers club in small groups. More than 60 Tuskegee Airmen were arrested.
The effort ended with the removal of Selway. His plan to confine black officers to a separate club was ruled out of synch with existing regulations prohibiting segregation of recreational facilities by race. Selway was replaced by Davis, the pilot who had led the escort mission deep into Germany just weeks earlier.
A photograph included in the original post has been removed because the subject’s claims of being a Tuskegee Airman could not be verified.