HeroVet: Roscoe Brown, Tuskegee Airmen Battles Racism Over Generations

Roscoe Brown

Ninety-two year-old Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Jr. knows a thing or two about the military. The African-American educator was an original Tuskegee Airman in World War II and holds a long list of accomplishments as a veteran after his service.

He was born in Washington, DC to a father who worked in the United States Public Health Service. There, he attended Dunbar High School and graduated valedictorian from Springfield College in 1943 before launching his monumental military career.

“When World War II started, the black press and the black community wanted blacks to be able to fly because in 1925, the military had done a study that said that blacks didn’t have the intelligence, ability, or coordination to fly airplanes,” Brown explained to The Daily Beast. “The pressure from the NAACP and the press caused them to start an experimental group that was to be trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, and that’s why we were known as ‘The Tuskegee Airmen.’”

About 3,000 African-American men recruited from several colleges’ elite leaders and athletes trained in Tuskegee. However, only 400 went overseas on missions from 1944-1945. The controversial flight training program received a boost in publicity when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt flew with an instructor in March of 1941. Throughout the war, the Tuskegee Airmen played a critical role and as a group, earned 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, and 8 Purple Hearts.

Brown was one of 95 airmen to win the Distinguished Flying Cross. He became the squadron commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group. He was responsible for shooting down the German Me-262 – the first plane he had ever shot down. In 2006, he and his fellow airmen were awarded The Congressional Gold Medal, the highest and most distinguished civilian award conferred by the United States Congress.

Despite his accomplishments along the way, he faced the harsh racist attitudes of American society in the 1940s.

U.S. President George W. Bush presents the Congressional Gold Medal to Dr. Roscoe Brown Jr., during ceremonies honoring the Tuskegee Airmen Thursday, March 29, 2007, at the U.S. Capitol. (White House Photo)
U.S. President George W. Bush presents the Congressional Gold
Medal to Dr. Roscoe Brown Jr., during ceremonies honoring the
Tuskegee Airmen Thursday, March 29, 2007, at the U.S. Capitol.
(White House Photo)

“This country was built on race, racial prejudice, and the efforts of blacks. So blacks have fought in every war going back to the Revolutionary War. Each time that we did that, we thought that if we defended the country and did it with dignity and excellence, the broader community would end segregation,” he explained to The Daily Beast.

“After World War II, that finally happened when in 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 eliminating segregation in the armed forces.”

The missions and challenges of the Tuskegee Airmen inspired the 2012 film, “Red Tails,” directed by Anthony Hemingway. Brown spoke highly of the film’s accurate portrayal in an interview for Black Tree TV:

“They caught the ambition. They caught the challenge. They caught some of the racism. They certainly showed the camaraderie and bonding that we had as pilots, and even the competition we had among each other.”

When the war ended, Brown returned to school and earned an M.A. in 1949 and a Ph.D in 1951 from New York University. He became the director of The Institute of Afro-American Affairs there and spent 27 years at the University. From 1977-1993, he served as president of City University of New York’s Bronx Community College.

Brown continues to work to bring attention to successful African-Americans in all fields. He won the 1973 Emmy Award for Distinguished Program for his series “Black Arts” and he currently hosts “African American Legends” on CUNY-TV.

With an admirably long lifetime of success, Brown now serves as director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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