By Lila Bringhurst
World War II marked the beginning of the end of segregation because of a small but valiant group of Black pilots and the men and women who formed a parallel staff of Black support personnel in the U.S. military.
The pilots were The Tuskegee Airmen, who bonded together and proudly flew airplanes with red painted tails.
“For many years these men didn’t receive the recognition they deserved,” said Sterling Stevenson. “I want these men and their descendants to know that we in the Bay Area respect and love them for the work that they did.
That is why the Bay Area Genesis Group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is honoring the William “Bill” Campbell Chapter of The Tuskegee Airmen. Three of the original aviators are expected to be there.
The event will take place Saturday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Oakland LDS Mormon Temple, Interstake Auditorium, 4770 Lincoln Ave., Oakland.
In addition to the showing of the “Red Tails” trailer, there will be music, displays, dancing and the opportunity to meet a few of the Tuskegee Airmen who live in the Bay Area.
David Cunningham is president of the local Campbell Chapter. His father, John Cunningham, joined the Army in 1941 and, although he was not part of the famous Red Tail fighter pilot, he eventually became an observation pilot, directing artillery fire. He joined the Tuskegee Airmen group because it has become a close-knit “family” with a common heritage.
In 1972 the Tuskegee Airman, Inc. was founded in Michigan to preserve the legacy of these veterans. The group tries to “motivate and inspire young Americans to become participants in our nation’s society and its democratic process and to preserve the history of their legacy.”
“My father worked at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama at the time and helped to organize The Tuskegee Airman,” said Conway Jones, Jr. who also belongs to the local chapter.
“Many of the original members are alive and active; the oldest is 102 years old, ” he said.
In 2007, President George W. Bush saluted the Tuskegee Airmen and awarded them a single Congressional Gold Medal, as a unit. Each man got a bronze duplicate medal.
It was an honor that was long overdue.
Tuskegee Airmen includes pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff for air and combat operations. For every pilot there were at least 12 support staff.
“Members of our group represent both officers and enlisted rank and across all services, across the board and across all fields,” Jones said. “Their descendants who join are called the Legacy members. We have a category called ‘Documented Airmen,’ who were those pilots who went through training at Moton Field as part of the World War II experiment.”
One of those original pilots was Robert Higginbotham. In 1944, he was a high school senior in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and all he wanted to do was follow his brother Mitchell’s footsteps and train to be a pilot in Tuskegee, Alabama.
“I happened to be walking down the hall,” recalled Higginbotham in a recent telephone interview, “and I saw a sign that said, ‘Aviation Cadet Exam now being given.’ So, I walked into the classroom and they gave me an examination. I passed it.”
He was first sent to a base in Pennsylvania and then to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.
“That was quite a journey because things were still segregated,” said Higgenbotham. “There were seven of us. All of us were from the north and had been educated in Pennsylvania, but when we got to Cincinnati, Ohio, they put us on a segregated train. We were all Blacks, all in uniform, and they put us right behind the engine with the other Black passengers, the most undesirable car on the train.”
During 13 weeks of basic flight instruction and examinations at Keesler, many men were dropped from the program.
“From Keesler we went to Tuskegee College, which it was called at that time,” explained Higgenbotham. “They had Black instructors who taught the cadets physics, math, and other classes related to flying. Then we began flying, where we advanced by flying increasingly powerful airplanes. They were very hard on us. They trained about 968 pilots, but they failed three times that many.”
The Tuskegee Airmen’s role in history was highlighted in the recently released movie, “Red Tails.” George Lucas spent 20 years doing research, visiting the sites and interviewing the veterans.
“At first they only accepted college graduates into the program,” said Higgenbotham, “but by the time I came in we only had to pass the examinations because a pilot’s life was only worth a minute-and-a-half of air time. Of course, you don’t think about dying when you are young.”
“After the war we all got together and formed The Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. Although we were from every state, every one of us was trained in Alabama,” said Higgenbotham. “Very few of them were able to get flying jobs after the war. My brother, Mitch, ended up working at the airport in Pittsburg.”
Their story was almost unknown until an HBO made for television movie called “The Tuskegee Airmen,” was released in 1995.
Striving for historical accuracy, it included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1941 visit to the Tuskegee Army Air Field when she flew with Charles Anderson, the first African American to earn a pilot’s license.
“My brother and I have a very close relationship with George Lucas because we got him to help with our float that was in the Rose Parade two years ago. That was the first time they ever had a Black float,” said Higgenbotham.
“I feel that I had a wonderful background, wonderful training, and a wonderful experience. We always stated that they washed out better pilots at Tuskegee than they graduated from Pensacola,” observed Dr. Higgenbotham.
“People said then that Black men didn’t have enough sense or education or intelligence or dexterity to become a pilot. And I will tell anyone that most of us have succeeded in everything that we’ve tried.”