The Tuskegee Airmen

My name is Kathleen Mahoney, and I am a Public History M.A. student at University of Massachusetts Amherst. This past summer, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to assist with cataloging digitized audiovisual content for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. My interest in interning with the AAPB team was twofold. As a Public History M.A. student at UMass Amherst focusing in archives, I am passionate about making historical materials available and accessible to wide audiences. As a student of modern American history, I am interested in how communities in the United States form identity and sense of place. The public media preserved by the AAPB offers unique insight into the culture and history of local communities throughout the country, and I am thankful to have been part of this project! As a dedicated enthusiast of public radio and television, I was excited by the opportunity to work toward preserving and promoting accessibility to this material. Over the summer, I worked on cataloging records from WEDU, a PBS member television station in Tampa, Florida.

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Yenwith Whitney, veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen

A 2005 episode of the WEDU television show Gulf Coast Journal features two local veterans of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American military pilots who fought in World War II and served as the first black pilots in American military history. These veterans, Nasby Wynn and Yenwith Whitney, discuss their wartime experiences and their ongoing interest in aviation.

Before 1940, African Americans were prohibited from flying for the U.S. military. However, concern over the threat of war provoked the Roosevelt administration to build a reserve of pilots. Beginning in 1939, the federally authorized Civilian Pilot Training Program provided funding to colleges and universities to expand flight training. The Tuskegee Institute, a black college in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington, successfully lobbied for funding and opened its doors to aspiring African American pilots in July 1941. “I wish I could tell you how happy I was to get these wings,” recalls Nasby Wynn, brandishing his military aviator badge, “after nine months of training, plus the segregation obstacles we had to hop over.”

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Nasby Wynn, veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen

Between 1941 and the end of World War II, 992 pilots completed the Tuskegee Airfield program, and 450 of those pilots served overseas in Europe and North Africa. Yenwith Whitney served as a pilot in the 332nd Fighter Group, flying 34 missions in a P-51 Mustang guiding bombers over Austria and Germany. “It was so exhilarating, so exciting, to feel the pull on that stick,” he remembers. Throughout the war, the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a single bomber to enemy aircraft.

While the U.S. armed forces remained racially segregated through World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen fought with great distinction. In addition to combatting the Axis powers abroad, their bravery was instrumental to combatting racism at home. “It proved that we were normal. We were human beings. We were just as any other,” Wynn states. On March 29, 2007, President Bush and Congress awarded the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal for fighting to defend the United States in the face of racism. As the population of surviving World War II veterans continues to dwindle, records like these of former soldiers provide invaluable insight into their lived experience.

To watch this segment of Gulf Coast Journal, visit the AAPB Online Reading Room.

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This blog post was written by Kathleen Mahoney, graduate student in Public History at University of Massachusetts Amherst and former AAPB Cataloging Intern.

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