From Black men who left successful sports careers to join the squadron in the 1940s to current sports personalities inspired by their story, the Tuskegee Airmen’s impact is still felt.
Agroup of all-Black fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen made history in World War II when they took to the skies of Europe and North Africa, as seen in the film “Red Tails.” At that time, the U.S. military was segregated and didn’t consider Black pilots. At the urging from Black newspapers and civil rights groups, the Army Air Corps opened a training site for Black pilots in Tuskegee, Alabama. More than 14,000 mostly college-educated Black men and women signed on to serve. Among them were men who also broke barriers in the sports world and influenced some of the most recognizable faces in sports today.
Lt. Wilmeth Sidat-Singh
Syracuse University’s first Black athlete starred for the basketball and football teams in the late 1930s. SU banned him from the whites-only dormitories and benched him on multiple occasions when opposing teams refused to compete against a Black player. After graduation, Sidat-Singh earned his wings with the Tuskegee Airmen. He died at 25 after his engine caught fire during a training run over Lake Huron. His retired No. 19 jersey hangs in the Carrier Dome.
Modern-day connectionLt. Col. John Mulzac, grandfather of Tobias Harris and Channing Frye
Sgt. Mal Whitfield
“Marvelous Mal” set a record and won gold in the 800 meters at the 1948 London Olympics. Four years later, he became the first active-duty military serviceman to win an Olympic medal when he tied his own record to win gold again in the 800 meters. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1988.
“It’s such an awesome story of achievements and accomplishments that can’t be denied.”
“Red Tails” director Anthony Hemingway on the Tuskegee Airmen
Modern-day connectionCol. Hubert L. “Hooks” Jones, grandfather of SportsCenter anchor Elle Duncan
After piloting jets with the Red Tails during World War II, Jones continued to serve in the U.S. Air Force and also fought in the Korean War. He later taught air science at Tuskegee Institute. The Denver chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., which introduces youth to aviation, is named after Jones.
Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr.
Brown was one of 16 Black students on campus when he arrived at Springfield (Mass.) College in 1940. He played along the offensive and defensive lines there for four years and graduated valedictorian in 1943. Brown commanded 68 missions of the 100th fighter squadron and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. After World War II, he dedicated his life to education and humanitarian work. Brown was awarded the 2012 National Football Foundation Gold Medal for his dedication to public service.
Modern-day connectionAir Force football’s Red Tails uniforms
Capt. Lowell Steward
Steward was the captain of the Santa Barbara State College (later renamed University of California, Santa Barbara) basketball team in 1941 when he and all his white teammates decided to enlist. He was the only man denied, but he kept asking, eventually gaining acceptance into the Tuskegee flight training program. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for his exceptional service. When the war ended, Steward tried to buy a house in California but was again denied. He obtained his real estate license and became one of the first Black brokers in Los Angeles County.
Modern-day connectionCol. Lawrence E. Roberts, father of Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts
“I asked my dad what it was like to fly, and he said, ‘It was a freedom I didn’t have on the ground as a Black man.’”
John Miles Jr.
Miles trained as an aircraft mechanic at Tuskegee, a trade he continued when he returned home to Texas after WWII. It was there that he was asked to join the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues. He played outfield and third base four seasons. Miles’ prowess at the plate prompted manager “Candy” Jim Taylor to nickname him “Mule,” because he hit “as hard as a mule kicks.”
“Excellence is an antidote to prejudice, excellence overcomes obstacles and it’s cool to be smart.”
Dr. Roscoe C. Brown
Lt. Col. John W. Mosley
Mosley, a fullback, was the first Black player to make the football team at Colorado State A&M (later Colorado State) in 1939. He was one of just nine Black students enrolled there at the time, five of whom were Mosley’s roommates. Mosley paid for his own flight training while in school, then was shocked when he wasn’t drafted to Tuskegee after graduation. He was instead deployed to a segregated Army artillery unit in Oklahoma. He wrote letters to Congress and the White House until he was transferred to Tuskegee, where he began a nearly 30-year career as an Air Force pilot.
Modern-day connectionDr. Wilbur L. Dungy, father of Tony Dungy
Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy wrote in his book “Quiet Strength” that he didn't learn of his father’s military service until after his 2004 death. After WWII, Wilbur Dungy got associate, bachelor’s master’s and doctoral degrees and began his career in education. He wasn’t allowed to teach at white schools in segregated Arlington, Virginia, but it did not deter him. He moved back home to Michigan and became the first Black professor at Jackson Community College, where he taught for 16 years.
“My dad taught me to not complain about the situation and to do whatever it takes to make it work. He also said no one should let anyone else define who they are and not to let anyone stop you.”
Photo credits: AP Photo, Colorado State Athletics, ESPN Images, Getty Images, Harris Family, Isaiah J. Downing, Los Angeles Chapter/Tuskegee Airmen Inc., Margot Jordan Photo, Mosley Family, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Randolph Scott/Tuskegee Airmen Inc., Syracuse, University Archives, Toni Frissell/Library of Congress, Trevor Cokley/U.S. Air Force photo, University Archives/UCSB Library