The celebration throughout February begins Thursday with a display at Yeager Airport highlighting the achievements of 14 black West Virginians who served as Tuskegee Airmen as well as West Virginia’s role in training some of the first black pilots. Other activities include the dedication of a marker at West Virginia State honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, a poetry and essay contest for schoolchildren and other events.
"We’re pleased to honor and recognize the exemplary service of these aviators," West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine said. "They courageously overcame racial discrimination and the adversities of war and distinguished themselves as outstanding airmen. It’s important that our children learn about their accomplishments."
In 1939, West Virginia State College was one of six historically black colleges and universities to be authorized by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish an aviation program. The school’s location near Wertz field in Institute, former home to Charleston’s municipal airport, provided easy access for pilot training.
Several West Virginia State-trained pilots later attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to become officers and pilots for the Air Corps. In fact, two West Virginia State pilots, George Spencer Roberts and Mac Ross, were among the first five Tuskegee pilot cadets.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of about 1,000 black pilots, bombardiers and navigators and 16,000 support personnel who volunteered to become America’s first black military airmen during World War II.
The "Tuskegee Experience" was expected to fail because some military leaders erroneously believed that blacks lacked the intelligence or character to fly combat missions. Instead, the Tuskegee Airmen garnered some of the most envied military records in history, collecting nearly 1,000 military awards.
More importantly, they advanced the American Civil Rights Movement and lead to President Harry Truman's decision to desegregate the military in 1948, more than a decade before Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington.
“The Tuskegee Airmen represent not only an important aspect of our nation’s history but also of our state’s history,” Paine said. “They dispelled many negative stereotypes and today serve as a model to anyone confronting challenge.”