The Tuskegee Flight Begins
J. Todd Moye is associate professor of history and director of the Oral History Program at the University of North Texas. He previously directed the Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project for the National Park Service and is the author of Let the People Decide.
In Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, his latest book, Moye tells the story of the Tuskegee airmen of World War II, a group of African Americans that fought the Axis powers in the skies and racism in their homeland. The following excerpt depicts Charles Alfred Anderson’s fight against discrimination to become a licensed pilot, instructor and eventually, a key figure for the most improbable squad of aviators.
Anderson taught himself to fly well enough to earn his pilot’s license in 1929, making him the second African American to hold one, but he found that he loved flying so much that what he really wanted to do was teach others. To do that, he needed a transport license, and to earn a transport license he needed to find another licensed pilot willing to give him advanced instruction. Again the white pilots he approached turned him down. He finally found a willing instructor with an unlikely background. Ernest Buehl had flown fighter aircraft for the German army in World War I and, according to Anderson, he provided in his dealings with the young pilot that “he was always in favor of white supremacy.” But it did not take Buehl long to decide that Anderson knew what he was doing. When Buehl accompanied Anderson to his test for transportation license in July 1932, the federal inspector told the German immigrant, “You know, I have never given the flight test to a colored person. I don’t know if I will.” According to Anderson, Buehl responded, “Well, he can fly as well as anybody. There is no reason why you shouldn’t give him the test.” Anderson later claimed that he answered every question on the written examination correctly and passed the flight check. The inspector decided that he could not in good conscience fail the black pilot but could not bring himself to award Anderson the perfect score he earned, either. He gave Anderson a score of eighty out of one hundred.
Hungry for anything he could learn about airplanes, Anderson joined the Pennsylvania National Guard with hopes of transferring into an aviation unit. Because the guard did not accept blacks, he tried to pass as white. Anderson was light skinned, but his true racial heritage was soon discovered, and he was kicked out of the service. He tried again to pass as white to enter Pets Aviation School in Philadelphia, but he was asked to leave that program also. With no job prospects in aviation, he dug sewer lines for a time on a Works Progress Administration project.
After news of Anderson’s success in earning a transport license spread through the African American community, Anderson met Dr. Albert E. Forsythe, a black surgeon working in Atlantic City, and agreed to give him flying lessons. Anderson was working for a wealthy white family in Bryn Mawr as a chauffeur and gardener at the time. It was too expensive for him to store and operate an airplane on his own. Forsythe became Anderson’s student and friend, but more importantly for the history of black aviation, his patron. Anderson remembered Forsythe as “a very, very aggressive and determined man, and an ambitious person [who] wanted to advance aviation among the blacks.” He suggested the idea of a transcontinental flight to publicize the cause of black aviation. With Forsythe bankrolling the flight, the pair flew an airplane with no more than a 65- or 70-horse-power engine and a maximum cruising speed of 130 miles an hour from Atlantic City to Los Angeles and back in 1933, making them the first black pilots to execute a round-trip transcontinental flight.
Forsythe and Anderson had plans for international flights, to Canada, the West Indies, and South America. They needed an airplane with a stronger motor for these flights, so they visited the Lambert Co. in Saint Louis, chatted with local aviator Charles Lindbergh, and purchased a Monocoupe with a stronger Warner engine. Anderson thought Lindbergh was “tops and supreme in aviation,” but beyond that had “never been much impressed with Lindbergh, because I always considered Lindbergh to be a racist.” The men named their aircraft the Booker T. Washington because both men honored the Tuskegee founder’s work ethic and Forsythe had attended the institute before graduating from McGill University in Canada. In 1934, with financial support from Tuskegee Institute, Forsythe and Anderson toured the islands of the Caribbean. They flew to the Bahamas; to Cuba, where President Fulgencio Batista gave the pair a hero’s welcome; through a tropical storm to Jamaica; and to Haiti. Their engine threw a piston over the mountains of the Dominican Republic, but Anderson was able to land the plane safely on the shores of a lake. They waited in a Dominican Army jungle camp for more than two weeks until replacement parts could be flown from the United States.
When Forsythe and Anderson returned home, they were the toast of Atlantic City. Forsythe wanted to continue the publicity-generating trips, even dreamed of organizing a round-the-world flight with Anderson, but he found that his surgical practice demanded too much of his time. Anderson returned to barnstorming, renting planes from others and flying them in front of paying crowds. Anderson eventually found his way to Washington, D.C., where he and two others instituted an aviation ground school curriculum for the black public high schools. When Howard University won a CPT contract, Anderson was hired as an instructor.