Black First of the Day

Black Firsts 3e
ISBN: 9781578593699

Who were the Tuskegee Airmen and why are they so famous?

  • Fought with valor despite being subjected to Jim Crow laws.
  • Suthorized by President Franklin Roosevelt.
  • One alum became the first black U.S. Air Force general.
  • Another alum became Detroit's first black major.


The first combat unit for blacks in the Army Air Corps.

The 33rd Fighter Group of four fighter squadrons comprised solely of black men was activated on October 13 at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama; it was the first black American military aviation group. Later three other black fighter squadrons was combined and became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. By the end of the year, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first black air unit in the history of the United States, was ready for action. In April 1943 the unit was in French Morocco for training under experienced combat pilots. The following month the leader of the squadron, Captain Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr., was promoted to major, then lieutenant colonel--all in one day. About six hundred black pilots received their wings during World War II. In April 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the legendary airmen the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can award to civilians. President Bush told the men, "You helped win a war, and you helped change our nation for the better." He continued, "And the medal that we confer today means that we are doing a small part to ensure that your story is told and honored for generations to come." Public Law 105-355, which President Bill Clinton approved on November 6, 1998, established the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Sources: Jet 111 (16 April 2007): 7; 111 (4 June 2007): 21; Smith, Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture, vol. 4, pp. 1416-19; Smith and Wynn, Freedom Facts and Firsts, pp. 191-92; Black Americans in Defense of Our Nation, p. 35; Cantor, Historic Landmarks of Black America, p. 352; Hornsby, Chronology of African-American History, p. 90; Negro Almanac, pp. 847-48.

Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. (1912-2002) became the first black U.S. Air Force general on October 27, 1954. He also became the first black air force officer to complete a solo flight in 1941 and the first black man to command an airbase. During World War II Davis received two promotions in one day in 1943, when he was promoted first to major and then to lieutenant colonel. President Bill Clinton elevated Davis to the rank of four-star general, and in 1994, President Clinton named him to the Board of Visitors of the U.S. Military Academy. Davis' career paralleled that of his father, U.S. Army General Benjamin O. Davis Sr., in rising to the rank of general, albeit in another branch of the armed forces.

In 1973 Coleman Alexander Young (1918-1997) was elected the first black mayor of Detroit. He served an unprecedented five terms. Young and Thomas Bradley (Los Angeles), elected at the same time, were the first black mayors of cities with populations over one million. In 1968 Young was the first black to serve on the Democratic National Committee.

From Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Events by Jessie Carney Smith, © 2013 Visible Ink Press®. A celebration of achievement, accomplishments and pride.

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