Seventy-five years ago this month, the nation’s first class of African-American fighter pilots earned their wings, overcoming racial prejudice and helping advance the integration of the military.
For Tacoman Karen Robinson, 66, the anniversary is personal. Her father, the late Leroy Roberts Jr., was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen and flew 42 missions during World War II.
After he retired as a lieutenant colonel from McChord Air Force Base in 1965, Roberts served as president of the local regional chapter for the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. twice before his death in 2008.
“My dad had always wanted to be a pilot,” Robinson said. “He would take odd jobs to get money to pay for his flying lessons. Nothing could deter him from his dream.”
Robinson has assumed the role of leading the Sam Bruce Chapter that covers Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho. It is a branch of a national organization that preserves the history of the pilots and encourages students of all races to pursue careers, including aviation, math and science, through scholarships.
In response to a request from the chapter, Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed Thursday as Tuskegee Airmen Day.
“We just want something to show our appreciation for their struggles and their accomplishments,” Robinson said.
At a time when the military was segregated, the Tuskegee Airmen were a group of 996 African-American fighter pilots and more than 16,000 support crew of the Army Air Corps. They trained at facilities in Tuskegee, Alabama and elsewhere.
President Franklin Roosevelt authorized training African Americans as pilots in 1940. The resulting program became known Tuskegee experience — or Tuskegee experiment to some.
The pilots, known as the Red Tails because they painted the rear of their long-range fighter planes red, flew about 1,500 missions, shooting down 111 aircraft and sinking a German warship to earn a Congressional Gold Medal.
Sixty-six Tuskegee pilots were killed in combat.
“The Tuskegee experiment did an awful lot of good,” Roberts told a News Tribune reporter in 1996, adding that much progress had been made in civil rights, but more was needed to end prejudice. “What still needs to be done is the simple matter of people accepting blacks as Americans.”
Robinson says the story of the Tuskegee Airmen still helps break down barriers.
“They fought through so much prejudice, and I do admire them all because they did fight two battles: one overseas and also one back in the United States,” she said. “And I think they were one of the ones that made the first steps towards racial integration in the United States.”