Eleanor Roosevelt’s Flight Into History With A Tuskegee Airman
Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman of conviction and courage. In 1941 she demonstrated both by climbing into the back seat of a J-3 Piper Cub and going up for a flight with an African American pilot at the controls, at a time when most Americans were convinced that blacks had neither the physical nor mental capacity to safely fly airplanes.
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 for a meeting with fellow trustees of the Julius Rosenwald Fund. The Institute had been 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 of her concern 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 particular interest was the aeronautical school that was in operation there. In 1939 Congress had 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 be the start of the “experiment” in black military aviation that would produce the acclaimed Tuskegee Airmen. But in order 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.
Chief Anderson honored by a postage stamp
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.”
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.”
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.
A Tuskegee Airman remembers Eleanor's flight
Mrs. Roosevelt uses her flight to influence FDR
But beyond the visibility the photograph brought with 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 in her efforts to persuade FDR to allow the Tuskegee Airmen to be deployed in the North Africa and European Theaters of the war.
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 her considerable influence with funders, with the public, and with 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 giving them the opportunity 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