The way it was

  • Published
  • By Ms. Erin Lasley
  • 62nd Airlift Wing History Office

A historian’s job is to not only record history, but also to teach it and perhaps remind people about the way things were. The most glorious part of my job is to present the history of our most celebrated achievements: Operation Homecoming, Deep Freeze, Unified Response and so much more. The most difficult part of my job is finding a way to tell the story of moments that make us cringe and would rather forget. I can write all day long about our most heroic moments, but I struggle with this story and have decided to just to rip the band-aid off. This is the story of segregation in the Air Force.

First, segregation is defined as setting someone or something apart from other people or things or the enforced separation of different racial groups in a country, community, or establishment. Second, segregation was the policy of not only the United States, but also the U.S. military, since the Civil War. Black Americans were not allowed to serve next to white Americans and black officers could not command white service members. Since the ruling of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896, the military, like much of the country, lived by the ruling separate but equal. This ruling set up decades of racial inequality and injustice. Not only did the U.S. military abide by this Supreme Court ruling, it also willingly followed unjust racial military studies of the 1920s and 1930s, which stated that black soldiers were inferior, subservient, and lacked initiative and resourcefulness and were therefore unfit. Never mind black Americans more than proved themselves during the Civil War and 38 black soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor between 1863 and 1898, military leaders looked for any reason to keep the status quo.

This was especially true within the Army Air Forces (AAF). While other services allowed select black Americans to serve, the AAF refused to allow any black people to serve in any capacity until the early 1940s because leaders believed black men were unsuitable for air duty and there simply were not any facilities to train and house black members. It was not until 1941 when the AAF finally bowed to pressure from Congress and black organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and created one pursuit squadron with 47 black officers and 429 black enlisted men. On March 22, 1941 the 99th Pursuit Squadron activated at Tuskegee, Alabama, and the 100th Pursuit Squadron activated the following year. In addition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt also promoted Benjamin O. Davis Sr. to brigadier general, the first black American to hold the rank.

While this certainly was the first step to racial equality within the AAF, there were still many challenges to face. Fearing social problems, Henry H. Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, strictly enforced segregation and allowed no black officer to command white members. Also, while the AAF accepted more and more black men, most served in support units performing labor tasks rather than serving in flying units. Even black women in the Women’s Army Corps found themselves performing housekeeping duties rather than jobs they had been trained for. Obviously, this had a great effect on morale.

The strict observance of separate but equal also led to problems with training, assignments and overcrowding. Many bases did not have, or refused to build, facilities to house black service members, which limited the amount of training and assignments open to black Americans. If a black service member was fortunate enough to receive training at Officer Candidate School in Florida, they were still limited in assignments and were usually sent to Tuskegee, which was dealing with massive overcrowding by 1943.

To alleviate overcrowding at Tuskegee, the AAF sent two Tuskegee groups to train at Selfridge Field, Michigan, in 1943. One would think, because Selfridge was in the north, race relations would improve and black airmen would receive better treatment than they did in Alabama. However, black airmen found conditions just as intolerable at Selfridge Field as they did in Jim Crow Alabama. One night in 1943, the white base commander drunkenly shot and wounded his black driver and gave the defense that he had stated several times he did not want a black driver. The AAF court-martialed the colonel, but he was only demoted to the rank of captain. Race relations deteriorated and on Jan. 1, 1944, the new base commander forbade three black officers from using the Officers’ Club and threatened to court martial any black officer who entered the club for inciting a riot. The base commander, though reprimanded and relieved of command, was supported by AAF leadership and even Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of Army Air Forces. Maj. Gen. Frank Hunter, First Air Force commander and commander of all black units, reported to higher headquarters that “I didn’t condone it, I ordered it,” when speaking of segregation.

Slowly views within the War Department began to change. Before, military leadership assumed separate but equal worked and outside forces stoked the fires of dissatisfaction among black service members, but by 1943 the War Department started to accept that not only were black Americans not inferior, they were victims of racism and segregation. The NAACP and black press flooded the War Department and President Franklin D. Roosevelt with letters outlining discrimination towards black service members and asked why black Americans should fight fascism abroad when they were subjected to racism at home. Maj. Gen. George Stratemeyer, chief of the Air Staff, and others finally began to look into the separate but certainly not equal treatment of black airman and started to hand down orders. 

One directive ordered all military members, regardless of race, had the right to utilize base recreational facilities. While this looked good on paper, many white officers found ways around the order. In response, white officers at many air bases simply went into town and rented facilities to serve as “whites only” officers’ clubs. At Freeman Army Field, Indiana, the base commander set up two clubs. One club was specifically for instructors who were all white and another club was specifically for trainees who happened to be all black. The subtle racist maneuver led to the Freeman Field mutiny in 1945 where more than 100 black officers were arrested for what we today know as civil disobedience. 

The War Department continued to hand down directives to improve the treatment of black service members, but the orders were not well received by subordinate generals, many of whom were from the south and committed to maintaining the status quo. Within the AAF, black service members continued to face segregation, racism, and low morale despite orders from Headquarters and the unwillingness of commanders to make any meaningful changes. The sad fact was, not only was discrimination frequent, it was defended as the custom in the military.

The War Department also went directly to the public in attempt to educate and ease racial tensions. In 1943, Frank Capra, producer of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, produced a short film, “The Negro Soldier.” The film was designed for both white and black audiences and showcased the accomplishments of black people in American history. The movie was meant to inspire the black audience and educate the white audience. It was shown in more than 3,500 commercial theaters and was required viewing for all military service members. It did little to reduce discrimination.

Segregation and discrimination was not limited to the United States, but followed U.S. service members to Europe as well. In England, black service members were still treated as second-class citizens by their white counterparts and friction developed over the use of recreational facilities and interracial dating, which was more acceptable in England. However, what made the European theater different from stateside was military commanders who were willing to change the status quo and who knew black service members were vital to the war effort. These generals, including Dwight Eisenhower, Ira Eaker, and Carl Spaatz, pushed for change. Gen. Eaker understood most of the racial problems were started and perpetuated by whites and ordered all his commanders to stop discriminating and get the job done. Black units were reorganized, white officers in black units were replaced by black officers, MP patrols consisted of white and black members, and efforts were made to prevent racial situations before they even happened. As a result, performance, morale and discipline improved.

Not all bases were riddled with discrimination. Many base commanders went out of their way to ensure all their military members were taken care of. The Second Air Force took time to actually understand black military members and their grievances and determined how to best utilize black airmen. Following the recommended changes, approximately 90 percent of black airmen were properly assigned. Other unit commanders in other AAF commands also made extra efforts to properly train, house, equip their black airmen. Slowly it became evident the most expedient course to solve racial problems was through the basic principles of constructive military leadership and a commitment to departmental policies. To put it simply, the best units with both black and white airmen had effective leaders who were committed to the wellbeing of their airmen, regardless of race.

While many changes came within AAF Headquarters, it was black service members and the black community who brought about the most change. Through constant letter writing campaigns, more coverage from the black press, and civil disobedience such as what happened at Freeman Field, the War Department was forced to take a closer look at its policies regarding black military members. The black press covered both the European and Pacific theaters, showing the world it was not just white sons and daughters dying for their country, but black sons and daughters too. The public was forced to look within themselves and ask why racial injustice was tolerated at home but not abroad.

By the war’s end, separate but equal was still the policy within the U.S. military, but many AAF leaders realized segregation was not only a hardship on the AAF, but was also morally wrong. Slowly, more commanders adopted policies concerning equal treatment until higher headquarters created and enforced equal treatment policies AAF wide. Finally on July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which outlawed segregation within the armed forces and established equal treatment and opportunity regardless of race. The order extended to all military schools, hospitals, facilities and bases.

Executive Order 9981 was not the magic bullet to end racism within the Air Force but it was the first major step to make a more effective Air Force without segregation. Historically, the fight against racial injustice lies with our leadership and our airmen. Air Force airmen have worked and fought side by side since 1948 and have accomplished more together than they ever have separate. Today, our ranks are filled with many races, genders, religions, nationalities, and creeds and we are stronger because of it. Though we have come so far since segregation, we still owe it to those who have come before and those who will come after us to remember how it was and to continue to ensure all our members are treated with the same respect and curtesy. As a historian it is my duty to tell you this horrible tale. As wingmen, it is our duty to ensure we do not repeat the past’s mistakes.  


Alan L. Gropman, The Air Force Integrates 1945 – 1964 (Washington D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1985).

Alan M. Osur, Separate and Unequal: Race Relations in the AAF During World War II (Washington D.C. Office of Air Force History, 2000).