Double V: The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmenby Lawrence P. Scott, William M. Womack
On April 12, 1945, the United States Army Air Force arrested 101 of its African American officers. They were charged with disobeying a direct order from a superior officer—a charge that could carry the death penalty upon conviction. They were accused of refusing to sign an order that would have placed them in segregated housing and recreational facilities
On April 12, 1945, the United States Army Air Force arrested 101 of its African American officers. They were charged with disobeying a direct order from a superior officer—a charge that could carry the death penalty upon conviction. They were accused of refusing to sign an order that would have placed them in segregated housing and recreational facilities. Their plight was virtually ignored by the press at the time, and books written about the subject did not detail the struggle these aviators underwent to win recognition of their civil rights.
The central theme of Double V is the promise held out to African American military personnel that service in World War II would deliver to them a double victory—a "double V"—over tyranny abroad and racial prejudice at home. The book's authors, Lawrence P. Scott and William M. Womack Sr., chronicle for the first time, in detail, one of America's most dramatic failures to deliver on that promise. In the course of their narrative, the authors demonstrate how the Tuskegee airmen suffered as second-class citizens while risking their lives to serve their country. Among the contributions made by this work is a detailed examination of how 101 Tuskegee airmen, by refusing to live in segregated quarters, triggered on e of the most significant judicial proceedings in U.S. military history. Double V uses oral accounts and heretofore unused government documents to portray this little-known struggle by one of America's most celebrated flying units.
In addition to providing background material about African American aviators before World War II. the authors also demonstrate how the Tuskegee airmen's struggle foretold dilemmas faced by the civil rights movement in the second half of the 20th century. Double V is destined to become an important contribution in the rapidly growing body of civil rights literature.
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The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen
By Lawrence P. Scott, William M. Womack Sr.
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 1994 Lawrence P. Scott and William M. Womack Sr.
All rights reserved.
By Any Means Necessary
Plans for war defined the waves of national enthusiasm that swept over the European peoples during the summer of 1914. Soon after the events at Sarajevo, governments mobilized their massive military resources and prepared to defeat their respective enemies. Most Europeans thought the conflict would be over in a matter of months; almost none foresaw a struggle that would drag on for four long years, that emperors and kings would be dethroned or that millions of lives would be sacrificed on the battlefield.
The handful of Americans living in France found themselves in a precarious situation. Notwithstanding the fact that they were surrounded by an enthusiastic French citizenry, it was clear that their lives might be at risk if they remained in the country. Their dilemma was underscored when the United States government issued a formal statement outlining its policy of neutrality and encouraging American citizens living in Europe to return home. The issue was, however, a simple one for the French government; young foreign males living in that country were given a choice; they could leave France or they could join the French Foreign Legion.
One enterprising young American thought of an alternative. Norman Prince, who happened to be vacationing in Paris when the war came, petitioned the French government for the establishment of an American squadron within the French Flying Corps. Prince, the son of a wealthy businessman, was a student pilot and viewed fighting for the French as both romantic and a payback for help France gave to the United States in the Revolutionary War. According to Arthur Whitehouse, author of The Years of the Sky Kings. Prince recruited all of the American men he could find, including two African Americans, Eugene Bullard and Robert Scanlon. When Prince first approached the French authorities with his plan and a list of volunteers, the government officials rejected the idea of an American squadron, citing the American policy of neutrality and the lack of flying experience among some of the volunteers. Prince was told that individuals with enough flight experience could volunteer for service in the French Flying Service, and that he should return to the United States for more civilian flight training. All of the other men on the list who had little or no flying experience were given the option of returning to the United States or joining the French Foreign Legion.
Prince returned to Boston to continue his flight training. All of the other white men on Prince's volunteer list, Victor Chapman, William Thaw, Kiffin Rockwell, Bert Hall, and Elliot Cowden, joined the Foreign Legion. These men were, for the most part, adventure seekers and romantics. The war, and the impending danger, attracted them, and service in the Foreign Legion was their right of passage. If some of these men had chosen to return home, they could have led productive and successful lives. For the two African Americans, however, the options offered to them were as attractive as playing Russian Roulette. Both options—life in America or life in the Foreign Legion—offered little consolation. Either choice could result in death for both men.
At the start of World War I, African Americans in the United States had little protection from unscrupulous whites in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the federal, state, and local governments. Although African Americans had a right to protection and fair treatment from the three branches of government, as stipulated in the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, oftentimes they were denied that protection.
From the end of the Reconstruction period to the beginning of the new century, over 2,450 African Americans were lynched in the United States, most under the suspicion of committing a crime, or tried and convicted by biased and hostile all-white juries. According to John Hope Franklin, in From Slavery to Freedom, over 1,100 African Americans were murdered by white mobs in the first thirteen years of the twentieth century. Very few of the organizers of these mob murders were ever arrested or convicted by the judicial systems in the areas where the lynchings occurred.
Eugene Bullard and Bob Scanlon both realized that America in 1914 was not a healthy place to be if you were a young, ambitious, African-American male, striving to participate in all of the liberties granted to American citizens. Both had ventured to Paris to escape racial oppression and violence and to participate in the liberties denied to them in America.
Not much is known or written about Bob Scanlon, other than that he was a heavyweight boxer who supposedly fought under the name of Bob Armstrong, and that he found his way to England, where he met Jack Johnson, who was, by then, in self-imposed exile. Johnson invited Scanlon to join his boxing troupe as a sparring partner. It was reported that Johnson admired fast machines, especially fast automobiles. While he was in England, it was not unusual to see him speeding on area race tracks with professional race car drivers or speeding around the city of London with the latest and most expensive sports car available.
Johnson's need and respect for speed and excitement affected his employees, and especially Scanlon. The young prize fighter wanted to fly an airplane. It was reported by the NAACP's December 1915 issue of The Crisis that Scanlon had built his own biplane and had flown it over London. If this occurred as reported, in the years preceding World War I, then Scanlon may have been the first known African American to build and fly an airplane. When Johnson defended his title in Paris, France, against Jim Moran in 1914, Scanlon accompanied him. Shortly after Johnson's fight, Germany invaded France and Johnson and his troupe hastily left France for England. Scanlon, who had difficulty finding Johnson in the panic that engulfed Paris, missed their departure and was, therefore, stranded.
Eugene Bullard arrived in Paris in 1913, after a seven-year odyssey that took him from his hometown of Columbus, Georgia, to Virginia, Scotland, England, and then to France. Bullard's father was a descendant of slaves from the French colony of Martinique and, as a child, he was told stories of how the French treated their slaves with more kindness than the British or the Americans. He was told that an African could live like a man in France. His father's stories took on new meaning when the young Bullard experienced the terror of mob violence in Georgia, when a lynch mob of masked men came to his house looking for his father. Bullard, as recounted in his unpublished memoirs, inserted in a book written by P.J. Carisella and James W. Ryan entitled The Black Swallow of Death, made his decision, while his entire family hid from the lynching party, to leave Georgia for France.
By most accounts, the young Bullard was between eight and eleven years of age when he ran away from Columbus. His sojourn from Columbus took him to various cities in the South, where he took on odd jobs to earn money for his journey to France. He survived by working as a stable hand and as a race horse jockey. After two years of this nomadic life, Eugene arrived in Newport News, Virginia, selected a cargo ship, and hid in a lifeboat. Fortunately for young Bullard, the vessel, a German cargo ship, was headed for Europe. He was discovered when the ship was at sea and was forced to work in the galley.
Eugene was put ashore to fend for himself in Aberdeen, Scotland. He survived in the seaside trading town by dancing for money and acting as a look out for gamblers. He somehow latched on to a traveling amusement show and ended up in Liverpool, England, working at a gymnasium for prize fighters. He became interested in boxing, and secured a manager by the name of Aaron Brown, who went by the fight name of the "Dixie Kid." Young Bullard participated in several boxing matches in Liverpool and London, England, and once fought in North Africa and in France.
While based as a boxer in London, Bullard met Jack Johnson and Bob Scanlon. All three happened to be residing at the same boarding house. Johnson and Scanlon were among the first adult Negro males to take an interest in the teenaged Bullard since he had left home. Johnson shared boxing secrets and, by example, the material facts of life, lessons that Bullard would never forget. Although there is no data to verify that Bullard was aware of Scanlon's experience, it appears reasonable that Bullard knew of Scanlon's flying activity and, possibly, participated in the construction and in the flying of the plane.
With his limited boxing experience, Bullard performed only once in France and shortly after the fight, his boxing troupe returned to London. Saddened by his lost opportunity to stay in France, his longtime goal, Bullard investigated ways of returning to France. Bullard received his chance when a traveling minstrel troupe in London allowed him to join them for their next set of shows which happened to be in Paris, in late 1913. Young Bullard had finally made it to Paris, and now he tried to secure some boxing dates for petty cash. He ended up doing odd jobs between fights and was in Paris during Johnson's championship fight with Moran and was there when World War I began.
Paris was where Bullard wanted to be, where his father had said he could live like a human being, with some respect. African Americans could move around Paris relatively free of the daily humiliation of forced segregation that they encountered in America. This lifestyle, for many African Americans who visited Paris during the early part of the twentieth century, was thought to be a relief, if not an enlightening experience. Consequently, the decision whether to return to America in 1914, or to remain and fight for democracy for a former slave-trading country that now treated descendants of slaves with a modicum of decency, was emotionally difficult, yet intellectually simple. Eugene Bullard and Bob Scanlon would join the French Foreign Legion and fight on behalf of France. They rationalized that they probably had a greater chance of surviving a foreign war in a foreign country than surviving in America.
Unlike any other war in the history of man, this particular war would be the first to feature the utilization of weaponry of mass destruction. Chemical warfare, fire cannons, guns with 80 millimeter shells, tanks with cannons and machine guns, and airplanes with machine guns and bombs would be used extensively in offensive maneuvers designed to kill thousands of people. Millions of lives would be lost on several continents. Young Bullard and Scanlon had no idea of the magnitude of the human violence and the loss of life they were to witness, but they had tasted enough freedom in France to take the chance of dying for her.
In October 1914, Bullard, Scanlon, and, according to The Crisis magazine, approximately ten other African Americans volunteered for service in the French Foreign Legion. They received training for the next month and then were assigned to the Marching Regiment of the Foreign Legion. The French Foreign Legion was an organization that operated with an army of misfits, criminals, and men who sought adventure. The Foreign Legion was made up of several nationalities, representing several races. Although the Legion had no policy of segregation of the races, men of common nationality or race were often assigned to the same division. All of the African Americans, including Bullard and Scanlon, were assigned to a division with Moroccans.
By December 1914, this division reached the battlefront and was engaged in a skirmish to capture the Artois Ridge, a crucial part of the German rail system. Early in 1915, the division was engaged in hand-to-hand combat over Hill 119 in Souchez and the Labyrinth near the Alsace Front.
Later that summer, the Marching Regiment was merged into the 1st Regiment, and Bullard and Scanlon, along with other African Americans, were, again, placed in a separate division with the Moroccans. Later, in the fall of 1915, the division was involved in an intensive and bloody battle at Champagne, which included heavy shelling and machine gun fire. There were many losses in the 1st Regiment and in the Moroccan Division. According to The Crisis, all of the African Americans were killed. It was later reported, however, that Bullard was alive. The Crisis reported that Scanlon died after being shot by a German while he assaulted German soldiers with his fists. Bullard received a head wound from shell fragments, and he claimed in his memoirs that he and Scanlon were the only African Americans in the Moroccan division to survive the Champagne conflict. Bullard also reported seeing Scanlon alive as late as 1940.
Shortly after the battle at Champagne, the French Foreign Legion was disengaged and its soldiers, including Americans, were released and given the option to volunteer for service in the French Infantry. White Americans, however, who had expressed an earlier interest in flying were invited to volunteer in the French Flying Corps. A few Americans received pilot training, and some eventually served in the French Flying Corps.
By this time in late 1915, Norman Prince was back in France, flying as a bombardier for a French squadron, but he continued to pursue his dream of an American Volunteer Squadron in the French Flying Corps. He enlisted the aide of the director of the American Volunteer Ambulance Service, Edmund Gross. Mr. Gross was very receptive to Prince's idea and arranged meetings with influential members of the French government and the American ambassadors. Once the French officials and representatives of the American government were convinced that international laws pertaining to neutrality were not violated with the establishment of an American Volunteer Squadron, the preliminary plans for such a squadron were approved. The Vanderbilts agreed to furnish $20,000 for the flyers' pay, uniforms, furloughs, and medals. Mr. Gross was appointed the fiduciary agent.
By March 1916, the white Americans who had been approached in 1914 by Norman Prince, and those who had volunteered for the French Foreign Legion and the Flying Corps, were transferred to the newly established Escadrille American, N. 124. These men, William Thaw, Elliot Cowdin, Bert Hall, Victor Chapman, Kiffen Rockwell, and James McConnel, would make up the nucleus of what would become the renowned Lafayette Escadrille. Eugene Bullard and Bob Scanlon, the two African Americans approached by Prince, were not invited or transferred to the Escadrille American. There was speculation that Gross did not care to have African Americans in his employ. When there were African Americans available in Paris to drive ambulances, he chose not to hire them. There was also speculation that the members of the new flying squadron, many of whom were from the South, would protest the presence of African Americans with equal status. Consequently, Bullard and Scanlon volunteered to be transferred to the French Infantry.
The two African-American veterans of the French Foreign Legion were assigned to the 170th Infantry of the French Army, and Bullard was promoted to Corporal. Their regiment consisted of Moroccans and Algerians. The French, at this point in the war, enjoyed the luxury of the full participation of African men from French colonies, who fought in defense of France. Although France, unlike Germany and Great Britain, who did not pay Africans to fight other African men in their respective East African colonies, according to W. E. B. DuBois in "An Essay Toward a History of the Black Man in the Great War," the French did employ a great number of Africans on the European continent during World War I. Approximately 310,000 African men from the French colonies fought on French and Belgian soil.
By March 1916, the 170th Infantry had moved to Verdun and was engaged in the most ferocious assault by the German Army at that time in the war. Germany's objective was to terminate as much enemy manpower as possible. The 170th was attacked by the German troops in a town called Vaux, nestled in the mountains of d'Haudremont. Under intense shelling, the shelter that housed a part of the regiment was hit and collapsed, and Bullard, according to his memoirs, received a head wound and lost a good many of his teeth.
Later in the month, the 170th was ordered to defend Fort Douaumont, in Verdun, from a German offensive. Bullard was assigned a machine-gun set up outside the Fort. The action, as Bullard described it in an article by Will Irwin in the 15 July 1916 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, was perpetual, with waves of Germans being cut down by machine-gun fire and waves of German troops replacing those cut down. Bullard's machine-gun unit was overwhelmed, and they had to make their way back to the fort. Along the way, they had to move from shell hole to shell hole, away from the German gunfire. The German advance was so fast that Bullard was forced to hide in one shell hole, where he surprised a German soldier by jumping out of the hole and shooting the soldier in the chest.
By the time he arrived at the fort, the Germans were firing their large guns at it. Later that night, as Bullard slept, a shell exploded in the house, killing or wounding most of the men. Bullard received a thigh wound and head cuts, but was able to leave the compound to search for medical assistance. When he returned with the medical help, he was cited the French Order of the Day, which is an honorable mention for the croix de guerre, for securing medical help for other men while he was, himself, wounded.
Excerpted from Double V by Lawrence P. Scott, William M. Womack Sr.. Copyright © 1994 Lawrence P. Scott and William M. Womack Sr.. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
William M. Womack, Sr., served as a Tuskegee Airman with the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy.. He was recruited, in 1940, into the new Negro Air Corps as Director of Physical Training for the Tuskegee Airmen. Lawrence P. Scott worked as a State of Michigan administrator.
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