Before World War II, African Americans were not allowed to pilot aircraft in the U.S. military. Racism prevented them from serving equally with their white counterparts. But a group known as the Tuskegee Airmen helped to tear down racial barriers and paved the way for desegregation of the armed forces in 1948 and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Despite those accomplishments, there are fewer African Americans serving similar combat roles in today’s U.S. Air Force.
The exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all black fighter squadron, went largely unnoticed during and after World War II.
“The information about the pilots in the news was a big secret as far as this country was concerned,” said Beverly Dunjill, a Tuskegee Airman.
Despite the lack of recognition, Dunjill and other pilots broke the “color barrier” in the U.S. military.
Inspiring younger generations
Their stories motivated youth like Kenyatta Ruffin, who, generations later, pursued a career in the armed forces.
“I vowed to conduct my life and to strive for excellence in the same manner they did,” said Ruffin.
After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Ruffin became an F-16 fighter pilot.
During a combat deployment to Iraq, fate brought him closer to the men he idolized.
“I landed at Balad Air Base in Iraq. And Balad was the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, which is a direct legacy to the same unit as the 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen. So no kidding, I was a member of the same unit as the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Ruffin.
Reaching new heights
It was a bittersweet moment for Ruffin, the only African American pilot assigned to the wing at the time.
“In most of the units I’ve been in, I’ve been the only African American pilot,” he said.
Ruffin is one of 45 African American fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force.
That is 1.4 percent of all fighter pilots in the Air Force - far fewer than the number who served during the Second World War, when nearly 1,000 pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in the southern state of Alabama.
“It’s an atrocious statistic, especially if you consider that we want to be representative of society, and the black population in America is anywhere between 10 and 12 percent,” said Ruffin.
Ruffin said the disparity is not due to racism.
“The issue is there is not enough exposure to it," he said. "The popular media, you’re filled with basketball players, football players, rappers, and your not exposed to the likes of the Tuskegee Airmen, who lived their lives with excellence, with character and competence.”
At a theater in Chicago, after watching the movie Red Tails that dramatizes the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen, Ruffin used the film as a way to increase exposure to his own life as an aviator.
He said the words of the first African American to rise to the rank of a four-star general, Daniel James, Jr., rings true when he talks to young people.
“He says ‘The power of excellence is overwhelming. It is always in demand, and nobody cares about its color.’ And that’s the truth,” said Ruffin.
The U.S. Air Force also has a motto for this - “Aim High.”