NATIONAL AIRMEN ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA

....before the Tuskegee Airmen

by Bennie J. McRae, Jr.

Copyright 1995. LWF Publications. Reprinted from "Lest We Forget," Volume 3, Number 3 - July 1995.
 

'TAPS' FOR TWO HEROES
General Daniel James Jr. and Dale White


During the mid 1930’s and prior to World War II a group of foresighted, concerned, and dedicated individuals came together in the Chicago area to form an organization that actively pursued and set the stage for the participation of African-Americans in the realms of aviation and aeronautics.

Under the leadership of Cornelius R. Coffey, Willa B, Brown, and Enoc P. Waters, the National Negro Airmen Association of American was formed with the express purpose.......to further stimulate interest in aviation, and to bring about a better understanding in the field of aeronautics. Shortly thereafter Claude Barnett, director of the Association of Negro Press (ANP), with strong backing from Chauncey Spencer and Dale White, suggested that the word Negro be dropped and the organization renamed the National Airmen Association of America. The proposal was adopted maintaining the original objectives.

On August 16, 1939 application for Certificate of Incorporation was filed in Cook County with the Illinois Secretary of State listing as Directors the following: Cornelius R. Coffey, Dale L. White, Harold Hurd, Willa B. Brown, Marie St. Clair, Charles Johnson, Chauncey E. Spencer, Grover C. Nash, Edward H. Johnson, Janet Waterford, George Williams, and Enoch P. Waters.

Many of the charter members had come to Chicago to further their interest in aviation at the Coffey School of Aviation, one of the few flight training programs in the United States where Blacks could take flying lessons. Chauncey Spencer was encouraged to come to Chicago in 1934 by Oscar DePriest, Congressional Representative, after being told by the Airport Operator in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia that “They didn’t teach colored to fly because they didn’t have the intelligence.”

A few months prior to the incorporation, the organization had undertaken a most profound and optimistic mission. With borrowed funds and donations, two members were chosen to take a goodwill tour to stimulate interest in the “first national Negro airshow to be held in Chicago,” and stop in Washington to communicate with lawmakers regarding inclusion of African-Americans in the government sponsored flight training and other aviation related programs. Enoch P. Waters, Jr., a member of the organization and city editor of the Chicago Defender, also suggested that the tour include a stop in Washington, D.C. to urge Congressional representatives to push for inclusion of the Negro in the Army Air Corps.

One thousand dollars was donated by the Jones Brothers, Ed and George, of Chicago who controlled the “policy,” a form of the numbers game, and also owned the Ben Franklin Department store on 47th Street. With five hundred dollars that Chauncey Spencer had saved, the organization was able to rent a Lincoln-Paige bi-plane from Art LaToure. Donations were sought from other organizations that refused, many stated that the proposed “mission was foolhardly and foolish.”

Dale White, a pioneer flyer and the holder of an aircraft engine mechanic’s certificate, and Chauncey Spencer had met a few years earlier and had become close friends. The two were chosen to undertake the history making mission.

Dale White and Chauncey Spencer departed Chicago’s Harlem Airport on May 9, 1939 enroute eastward, and approximately three and one-half hours later were forced to land in a farmer’s field near Sherwood, Ohio due to a damaged crankshaft. Sherwood is located 15 miles west of Defiance and approximately 15 miles east of the Indiana-Ohio border. Repairs were made after a new crankshaft was delivered by Cornelius Coffey, a licensed aircraft mechanic, and Clyde Howard, also an avid aviator.

After a two and one-half day delay at Sherwood, the two departed for Morgantown, West Virginia where they were allowed to refuel the aircraft, but was refused hangar rental space. As night was approaching, they departed Morgantown enroute to the Pittsburgh area with no lights on the aircraft. The beacon at Allegheny County Airport was spotted and they followed a Pennsylvania-Central Airlines transport to a safe landing.

The Civil Aeronautics Inspectors were very upset and temporarily grounded the daring flyers for flying too close and endangering the lives on a commercial airline. Robert L. Vann, Publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, appeared on their behalf the next morning at a hearing where they were cleared. Mr. Vann then donated five hundred dollars to their cause along with letters to influential representatives.

Spencer and White departed Pittsburgh and flew directly to Washington where they were met by Edgar Brown, National Airmen’s Association lobbyist, and also the president of the Negro Federal Workers Employees Union. While accompanying Mr. Brown to the Capitol and Congressional offices, they happen to come in contact with Senator Harry S. Truman, Democrat from Missouri, who was intercepted and introduced to White and Spencer along with an explanation of their mission to Washington.

Senator Truman asked, “What do you do?” They explained that both worked for the WPA. “So what are you doing here? Why aren’t you working today?” They explained that they had taken time off because they felt a need to dramatize the need for the inclusion of the Negro in the Army Air Corps. Truman seemed surprised and asked, “Why aren’t you in the Air Corps? Can’t you get in?” Edgar Brown explained that Negroes were not accepted.

“Have you tried?” asked Truman. The reply, “No sir, but others have tried and have been embarrassed. They have been turned away without regard for their training or ability. Only the color of their skin mattered.” “Well, I think you should try,” Truman stated. Dale White replied, “We’d like to try but we’d also like for you to help us open the door. We haven’t been able to break down the barriers ourselves. Mr. Truman, you don’t know what it means to be embarrassed. I’ve tried these things before. There’s just no use.” “I’ve been embarrassed before,” stated Truman. The reply, “Not like this, Mr. Truman. Not like we are.”

Senator Truman had spoken in his normal blunt way and wanted to see the aircraft. Later that afternoon he arranged to visit the airport and climbed up on the wing in order to look in the cockpit. He asked, “How much gas can this carry? How much did it cost to rent? Do you have insurance?” He was enthusiastic, however, he did not want to go for a ride. He stated that, “If they had guts enough to fly this thing to Washington, he’d have enough guts to back them.” Shortly afterwards, he helped put through legislation in the Senate insuring that Blacks would be trained along with whites under the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Another key figure that White and Spencer met and talked with was Congressional Everett Dirksen, Republican for Illinois who later introduced the amendment to the Civil Aeronautics bill in the House of Representatives prohibiting discrimination in the administration of the benefits of the Act. Three years later a bill was passed including Blacks in the Army Air Corps.

The Civilian Pilot Training Act was passed on June 27, 1939 and by August funds had been appropriated. Through the persistent effort of Charles Alfred Anderson and James C. Evans, Tuskegee Institute submitted an application in which receipt was acknowledged by the Civil Aeronautics Administration on September 25, 1939. Two other Black institutions, West Virginia State College and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, had already been approved. James C. Evans of West Virginia State College whose brother-in-law was G. L. Washington, the Director of the Department of Mechanical Industries, had already spoken to the Civil Aeronautical Administration officials on behalf of Tuskegee Institute.

Following some operational and bureaucratic procedures, the program was instituted at Tuskegee in late 1939. Two instructors from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University), Robert G. Pitts and Bloomfield M. Cornell, agreed to conduct the ground school portion of the training until the Tuskegee instructors were trained. They taught the four principle units of instruction, amounting to sixty of the seventy-two hours. The flight training initially was conducted by the Alabama Air Service, owned and operated by Joseph W. Allen out of the municipal airport in Montgomery, who stated that he had no reservations about teaching blacks to fly.

March 25, 1940 should be remembered and embedded in the minds of everyone. On that date George A. Wiggs arrived in Tuskegee to administer the standard written examination required of all Civilian Pilot Training students. After administering and grading the exams, he revealed that the Tuskegee students had passed every subject. They had become the only southern school with a 100 percent pass rated, but had done so by a wide margin in comparison to Georgia Tech., Auburn, and North Carolina. Prior to that time in the seven southern states, no college had a record of 100% passing on the first examination.

The average score was 88 percent. One third of the students scored above 90 percent. The lowest score was 78 percent and the highest scores were recorded by Charles R. Foxx, who averaged 97 percent, Alexander S. Anderson with 96 percent, and Elvatus C. Morris with 95 percent.

The students almost equaled the 100 percent pass rate on the flight evaluations, By the end of May 1940, when the flight phase was completed all but one of the students had passed the flight examination administered by the Civil Aeronautics Administration inspectors and received their private pilot license.

Charles Foxx became one of the seven students in the southeastern region to compete for the Shell Intercollegiate Aviation Scholarship, and was one of only forty-nine students in the nation to vie for the $1,500 scholarship. He had been selected not only for his near-perfect score on the written examination, but also because he was a superb pilot with superior flying skills. C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson recalled many years later that in his fifty years of flying he had “never seen a person as slick a pilot as Charlie Foxx. He was a natural born pilot.”

As we go through the revelry over the dedication and record of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, let us also remember the foresightedness, advocacy, fortitude, and courageous efforts by members of the National Airmen Association of America, especially Chauncey Spencer and Dale White; strong supporters, such as, Enoch Waters of the Chicago Defender, Robert Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier, the Jones Brothers, Walter White and James Weldon Johnson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lester Granger of the National Urban League; Senator Harry S. Truman, Congressman Everett Dirksen and other lawmaker who believed in and supported the effort; the students in the first CPT class at Tuskegee who proved that they could compete and excel along side their white counterpart; ground school instructors Robert Pitts, Bloomfield Cornell, and flight instructor Joseph W. Allen.

Finally, let us never forget the men and women who organized and became charter members of the National Airmen Association of America; the organization's staunch supporters; the students of the first Civilian Pilot Training class at Tuskegee; Lewis Jackson, Chief Administrative Officer; C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, Chief Flight Instructor; the civilian flight instructors; support personnel of the 66th Army Air Corps Flight Training Detachment; and others, through their dedication and competency, who contributed by proving that people of African descent could excel in the field of aviation and soar among the best of them despite existing prejudices, apprehensions and intimidations.

The record speaks for itself.

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REFERENCES:

Jakeman, Robert J. THE DIVIDED SKIES: Establishing Segregated Flight Training at Tuskegee, Alabama, 1934-1942. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1992.

Nalty, Bernard C. STRENGTH FOR THE FIGHT: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: The Free Press (A Division of Macmillan, Inc.),1986.

Spencer, Chauncey. WHO IS CHAUNCEY SPENCER? Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975.

Spencer, Chauncey. Interview, October 15, 1994, Lynchburg, Virginia.


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Bennie J. McRae, Jr.
LWF Communications
Trotwood, Ohio