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Eleanor Roosevelt's Flight Into History With a Tuskegee Airman

Ron is a student of African American history. His writing highlights the stories of people who overcame prejudice to achieve great things.

A Visit to Tuskegee

As the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt became well known for her concern for the civil rights of African Americans. She did all she could to demonstrate to a skeptical nation that its black population was just as intelligent and capable as other Americans and deserved all the rights and privileges of citizenship. In 1941, she found an opportunity to reinforce that conviction in a dramatic fashion.

In March of that year, the First Lady visited the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to meet fellow trustees of the Julius Rosenwald Fund. The Institute was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington and, with famed agricultural scientist Dr. George Washington Carver in residence, had a stellar reputation for its programs to improve educational opportunities and the quality of life for blacks and other disadvantaged people.

Because she was concerned for the welfare of the nation's black population, the First Lady had a great interest in the various projects Tuskegee Institute was carrying out. One of these that stirred her interest was the aeronautical school in operation there. In 1939 Congress established the Civilian Pilot Training Program at colleges and universities around the country. Hard-fought efforts by African American activists resulted in six historically black colleges, Tuskegee among them, being included in the program.

Tuskegee Becomes the Training Site for Black Military Pilots

Because of its outstanding record with the civilian flight program, in January of 1941, the War Department selected Tuskegee to be the pilot training base for the newly formed 99th Pursuit Squadron. This would start the “experiment” in black military aviation producing the acclaimed Tuskegee Airmen. But to implement the plan, Tuskegee needed to find funding to bring its airfield up to the required standard. It was to consider that need that Mrs. Roosevelt and the other Julius Rosenwald Fund trustees assembled at the school.

The First Lady Goes for a Flight With a Black Pilot

On March 29, 1941, Mrs. Roosevelt visited Tuskegee’s airfield, where she met Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson, the head of the civilian pilot training program and its chief flight instructor. Anderson was the first, and at that time only, African American pilot to have received his commercial transport license.

This future leader of the Tuskegee Airmen had begun making his mark on aviation as early as 1933, when he and another pioneer aviator, Dr. Albert E. Forsythe, became the first African Americans to complete a transcontinental flight, from Atlantic City to Los Angeles and back. But now, he was about to make what, from a historical perspective, was perhaps the most impactful flight of his career.

Mrs. Roosevelt and C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson in the plane

Mrs. Roosevelt and C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson in the plane

According to J. Todd Moye in his book Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, Mrs. Roosevelt observed to Anderson that everybody had told her black people couldn’t fly airplanes. She then asked if he would take her up for an aerial tour.

The First Lady’s Secret Service escort, of course, went apoplectic. But Eleanor Roosevelt was nothing if not stubborn when she had a worthy end in mind. So, up they went, for the better part of an hour. It was certainly the first time in history that a First Lady of the United States flew with a black man at the controls.

Anderson remembers that they had a delightful flight, which Mrs. Roosevelt enjoyed very much. When they landed, she told him, “Well, you can fly, alright.”

In March of 2014, C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson was honored by being featured on a U. S. postage stamp. The 70-cent First-Class stamp is the 15th in the Postal Service’s Distinguished American Series. In its announcement, the Postal Service celebrated Chief Anderson as “The Father of Black Aviation” and “the Charles Lindbergh of Black Aviation.”

Mrs. Roosevelt's Uses Her Flight to Educate the American Public

It’s clear that from the beginning of this adventure, Mrs. Roosevelt knew exactly what she was doing. According to the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University, she insisted that her flight with pilot Anderson be photographed and the film developed immediately so she could take it back to Washington with her.

The photograph appeared in papers across the country, and Mrs. Roosevelt described the flight in a paragraph in her weekly newspaper column, My Day, saying, “These boys are good pilots.” As Moye notes, for millions of her readers, this would be the first time they became aware of blacks flying airplanes and doing it well.

Mrs. Roosevelt Uses Her Flight to Influence FDR

But beyond the visibility the photograph brought to the public, Mrs. Roosevelt also had another audience in mind. That audience consisted of only one person. It was, of course, her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States. The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project says she later used that photograph to persuade FDR to allow the Tuskegee Airmen to be deployed in the war's North Africa and European Theaters.

She also used her influence as a Julius Rosenwald Fund trustee to have that organization appropriate a loan to help Tuskegee to bring its airfield up to required military standards.

A Lasting Legacy

For at least two decades, African Americans who wanted to serve as military aviators had been stymied by a brick wall of prejudice and intolerance. Eleanor Roosevelt was committed to doing everything she could to change that. She exerted considerable influence with funders, the public, and her husband, the President of the United States, to bring about the needed change.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s flight with “Chief” Anderson was a big first step in establishing the reputation of the Tuskegee Airmen in the public mind and allowing them to achieve the outstanding combat record they earned during World War II. That, in turn, was an important factor in President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order abolishing racial discrimination throughout the American military.

In a very real way, the effects of Eleanor Roosevelt’s flight into history still resonate today.

© 2013 Ronald E Franklin

Comments

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 28, 2013:

Thanks! I, too, have always admired her, and even more so when I learned of this incident.

Anthony Carrell from Lemoore California on February 28, 2013:

Excellent hub. I've always admired Eleanor Roosevelt