Meet Mary Mcleod Bethune, Without Who the Historic Tuskegee Airmen May Not Have Existed

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American aviators in America, serving during a time when the American Army was segregated. Despite encountering discrimination both inside and outside the service, the 332nd Fighter Group and the 99th Pursuit Squadron were regarded as highly successful during World War II.

During World War II, they flew over 15,000 solo sorties in Europe and North Africa after receiving training at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. According to History, their outstanding performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and subsequently aided in the integration of the US armed services.

The Tuskegee Airmen might not have been if it hadn’t been for Mary McLeod Bethune’s tireless efforts. She was instrumental in the integration of the pilot program that aided in the recruitment of America’s first Black military pilots. Bethune was born on July 10, 1875, in South Carolina, to formerly enslaved Africans. She yearned for an education since she was a child, but because she was black, she was refused an education.

She was able to attend a Presbyterian church school when she was 11, but her dreams of becoming a missionary after seminary was destroyed – again, due to prejudice. She married Albertus Bethune and decided to become a schoolteacher because no church would sponsor her missionary work.

She founded a boarding school in Florida in 1904 to educate young women who also desired an education. According to this article, the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls was the only school of its sort on the East Coast that catered to African-American women. Bethune-Cookman College was formed when the school combined with the all-male Cookman Institute. The report continued in 1929. Bethune was able to secure funds for her college thanks to the Rockefellers and James Gamble of Proctor & Gamble since she was a strong-willed lady.

“Eleanor Roosevelt became a close friend of hers. She served as an adviser to four presidents, which is unprecedented. Dr. Tasha Youmans, dean of Bethune-Cookman university library, told AccuWeather, “I don’t know if anyone else has been able to do that since that time, but she did it.”

Bethune was the sole female member of Roosevelt’s famous “Black Cabinet” and the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women, which advocated for racial and gender equality. She leveraged her black cabinet position and acquaintance with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to fight for the integration of the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program on the campuses of historically Black institutions and universities.

In reality, West Virginia State College was the first Black institution to establish an aviation program and obtain its first military plane in 1939, owing to Bethune. According to March Air Reserve Base, “the precedent aided the Tuskegee Institute, which was permitted the same later that year.”

By 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt had persuaded the Rosenwald Fund to expand the Tuskegee pilot training program. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had become deeply involved in the pilot training program, paid a visit to the Tuskegee Institute’s Moton Airfield the same year. She asked “Chief” Charles A. Anderson, the chief flight instructor, whether he would take her flying. Despite the Secret Service’s objections, Eleanor Roosevelt flew over the Tuskegee airport for over an hour, likely the first time a Black man flew a plane with a White woman as a passenger, according to March Air Reserve Base.

Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband for the integration of the country’s air forces after her visit to the Tuskegee Institute. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9279 in December 1942, “ordering the services to officially abolish limitations on African Americans serving in the military.” The Tuskegee Airmen were formed as a result of this command. Tuskegee University was awarded a contract by the United States Army Air Corps to assist in the training of America’s first Black military aviators. Between 1941 and 1946, Tuskegee trained almost 1,000 black pilots.

By the end of 1944, the Army had 700,000 African-Americans; the Marine Corps had 17,000, the Navy had 165,000, and the Coast Guard had 5,000. This is largely due to educator and civil rights crusader Bethune’s efforts, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt’s. Bethune continued to defend democratic ideas until her death on May 18, 1955, at the age of 79, from a heart attack.

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