Black Americans, both men and women, have left their legacy in the skies over the United States and around the world. From commercial enterprises to war veterans, these brave men and women opened the aviation frontier to all that would follow.
African Americans have played a significant role in U.S. military
history. They were denied military leadership
roles and skilled training because many believed they lacked
qualifications for combat duty.
This exhibit is the beginning of the epic story of The Evolution of Black Americans in Aviation and Space. From people such as General Benjamin Davis Jr., to the Tuskegee Airmen, these individuals made significant and everlasting contributions to the United States itself and specifically to aviation.
Oakland Aviation Museum takes pride in being able to exhibit artifacts and information relevant to the struggle and ultimate success of all Black Americans as they ventured into aviation and space.
General Benjamin O. Davis Jr
Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a pioneering military
officer was the leader of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen during World War
II. He was the first African American to become a General in the Air Force. His
combat record and that of the unit he led have been credited with playing
a major role in prompting the integration of the armed services after World
In a career that began in the days of segregation,
General Davis, who was born in Washington and lived there for much of his
life, compiled a long history of achievements and accomplishments.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1970, General Davis supervised the Federal Sky Marshal Program - designed to quell
a rash of airliner hijackings. He was named an Assistant Secretary
of Transportation in 1971.
He left the Air Force as a Lieutenant
General, wearing three stars and was the senior black officer in the armed
forces. President Bill Clinton awarded General Davis his fourth
star in 1998, advancing him to full general.
Prior to 1940, African Americans were barred from flying for the U.S.
military. Civil rights organizations coupled with the black press exerted
pressure that resulted in the formation of an all African-American aircraft
pursuit squadron based in Tuskegee, Alabama - in 1941. They became known
as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated, determined young men who enlisted to become America's first black military airmen. Four hundred and fifty (450) of the pilots who were trained, served
overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter
Squadron) or the 332nd Fighter Group.
The outstanding record of black aviators in World War II was accomplished
by men whose names will forever live in hallowed memory. Each one
accepted the challenge, proudly displayed his skill and determination
while suppressing internal rage from humiliation and indignation caused
by frequent experiences of racism and bigotry - both at home and overseas.
These airmen fought two wars - one against a military force overseas
and the other against racism at home and abroad. After the war ended in 1945, black airmen returned to the
United States and faced continued racism and bigotry despite their
outstanding war record. Large numbers of black airmen elected to remain in the service but because of segregation their assignments were limited.
Executive Order Number 9981
was signed by President Harry Truman in 1948, which directed equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the
United States Armed Forces. This order, over time, led to the end of
racial segregation in the military forces. It was also the first step
toward racial integration in the United States of America.
positive experience, outstanding record of accomplishment and the
superb behavior of black airmen during World War II, and after, were
important factors in the initiation of the historic social change to
achieve racial equality in America.
Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman
Bessie Coleman, born in 1892, was
the first female African-American aviator. Unable to gain
admission to US flight schools because of her race and gender, she moved to
France where, in 1921, she became the first African-American woman to earn an
international aviation license. She also became the first American of any
gender or ethnicity to do so. In Europe, Coleman learned how to fly and
parachute out of a plane and then trained to become a stunt pilot.
returning to the U.S, Coleman became a star on the barnstorming circuit, where
she performed aerial stunts. Part of Coleman's aviation career brought her to
Oakland, Calif., where in 1923, she landed a job publicizing the Coast Tire and
Rubber Company of Oakland and appeared in the company's newspaper ads. In 1926,
while her mechanic was piloting her plane, it spun out of control, resulting in
both the mechanic's and Coleman's deaths.
Bessie Coleman standing next to a L.F.G. Roland
biplane with instructor Robert Thelen, who taught her advanced aerobatics in
Berlin, Germany in 1921. (Photo courtesy of the Port of Oakland Archives)