Dr. Roscoe Brown visited Cornell Tuesday to deliver a presentation entitled “The Tuskegee Airmen: Challenge to an American Myth,” in which he described his experience as a member of the eponymous World War II United States Army Air Corps unit, the first in the nation’s history to enlist African American pilots.
The 332nd Fighter Group, more commonly known as the “Tuskegee Airmen,” broke barriers by dispelling the myth that African Americans were incapable of flying in the United States military, and in the process, became one of the most respected Air Corps units in World War II. Brown will be receiving the Congressional Gold Medal along with the rest of 332nd on March 29. This is the highest civilian honor Congress bestows.
Responding to pressure from groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the United States Congress enacted legislation compelling the military to form the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps, a unit composed entirely of African Americans. The group earned its nickname, “The Tuskegee Airmen” after training in Tuskegee, Alabama, just miles away from the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington. They were then was dispatched to Europe, where they defended bomber planes from enemy fighters.
Throughout the presentation, Brown shared several stories of his time with the 332nd, which he joined in 1943. He recalled, in particular, the effect of race on his experience. All of the instructors who trained the “Airmen” were white, and initially, he said, many held bigoted attitudes towards the all-black unit. However, once the potential of the group became evident, the racist attitudes that had originally strained relations subsided.
“In the end, skill wins out,” said Brown.
The group, first notable for the circumstances of its creation, was soon regarded as one of the most impressive units in the Air Corps.
“We did a major job bringing about integration,”said Brown before his presentation.
In 1948, President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the United States military, largely due to the success of the “Tuskegee Airmen,” Brown said.
Kevin Goss ’10, said the presentation informed him of aspects of segregation of which he had not previously been aware.
“I mainly knew of the Tuskegee Airmen because there was a G.I. Joe of them, but now, knowing this story, I have this entirely new perspective. [Brown’s] story is pretty amazing, and it solidifies the idea that the country really has come a long way in the last hundred years.”
Brown was brought to Cornell by longtime friend Richard E. Ripple, Professor Emeritus and Faculty in Residence at Mews Hall, as part of the Fifth Ripple Endowment. The effort was in conjunction with the “Roscoe Brown Planning Committee,” comprised of Thomas Noel, residence hall director of Mews Hall, William Horning, program director of Cornell community centers, Denice Cassaro, assistant director of community center programs, and Natalie Cook, advisor for the Black Female Focus Association.
“I’m one of those very fortunate people, through my life, to have done so many things,” Brown said.
At the end of his presentation, he elaborated on his post-military career path, explaining his involvement in a wide variety of fields ranging from sports medicine to education reform— an area he is currently deeply involved with as the director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York.
“What you have here is a renaissance man. War hero. Sportsman. Scholar in education,” Ripple said.