I went to see Red Tails with one of my students. She is a graduate of a historically Black college. Given my research and her undergraduate institution, we were excited to see the depiction of a Black college and its contributions in the film. Although we both enjoyed the movie, I was disappointed that the contributions of Tuskegee University were not highlighted more fully. In fact, if someone were not familiar with Black colleges or Tuskegee’s history, they might have missed the influence of this historic institution on the lives of the pilots in Red Tails. It was barely mentioned.
In 1939, the federal government passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act, which excluded African Americans. Shortly afterward, Tuskegee University, along with several Black media outlets and some civil rights organizations, began to lobby the federal government. They called for the government to change its policies and to allow Blacks to train as fighter pilots.
Tuskegee University was the site of the first Black fighter pilot training and eventually became a hub for African-American aviation training. Under the leadership of Frederick D. Patterson, the institution served the country and produced highly skilled fighter pilots. Tuskegee was the ideal place as it had a strong engineering program, an airfield, and weather that made it possible to train pilots all year long. The institution also had a significant reputation and considerable influence among national circles, beginning with its first president, Booker T. Washington, then Robert Moton, and, with Patterson, who although less well known than his predecessors, was a skilled leader with many connections. Patterson, often considered a Conservative by scholars, fought for opportunities for African-Americans regularly. He tended to work within the system but fought nonetheless. The Tuskegee airmen were one of his crowning accomplishments—he defied the odds to win a government contract to train the Tuskegee airmen.
More than 1,000 men trained at Tuskegee University—the members of the 332nd fighter group—and have a superior record as air escorts, destroyed 260 enemy aircraft and share 850 medals for their bravery. These accomplishments scrolled the screen at the end of Red Tails.
Much of the success of these men can be attributed to the environment in which they learned. Tuskegee was filled with role models who both supported and empowered the pilots—preparing them for the difficulties of the military. With this strength, they were able to prove to the nation that African-American pilots, often with fewer resources, could and would defend their country.
Red Tails is a movie worth seeing, but also spend a bit of time reading about the lives of the Tuskegee airmen, Tuskegee University, and Frederick D. Patterson for a fuller portrayal of this historic story.
A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).