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Political Pressure

Maj. George S. “Spanky” Roberts at the controls of a P-51 Mustang. Roberts was the first African American accepted for U.S. Army pilot training. He later commanded the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Maj. George S. “Spanky” Roberts at the controls of a P-51 Mustang. Roberts was the first African American accepted for U.S. Army pilot training. He later commanded the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cadets are welcomed to Army Air Corps training in front of the Booker T. Washington monument at Tuskegee Institute, August 1941. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cadets are welcomed to Army Air Corps training in front of the Booker T. Washington monument at Tuskegee Institute, August 1941. (U.S. Air Force photo)

In the late 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt anticipated that the U.S. could be drawn into a war in Europe. His administration began a pilot training program in 1938 to create a reserve of trained civilian fliers in case of a national emergency. African American leaders argued that blacks should share with whites the burden of defending the United States, and the government opened the program to African Americans. In 1940, the Selective Training and Service Act banned racial discrimination in conscription, clearing the way for blacks to be trained for U.S. Army Air Corps service.

Tuskegee Institute, a black college founded in Alabama in 1881 by Booker T. Washington, participated in the Roosevelt administration's pilot training program, and graduated its first civilian-licensed pilots in May 1940. Tuskegee Institute and the flying school at Tuskegee Army Air Field were the main sources of black military pilots in WWII (nine others were trained as liaison pilots at Fort Sill, Okla.).

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