Red-Tailed Angels: How the Tuskegee Airmen Changed History

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 14056

Learn how a group of intelligent, brave, and dedicated men changed the course of history, helped win a war, and forced the United States government to desegregate the Armed Forces.


United States, World

learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Look closely at the coin shown below.

Tuskegee Airmen Quarter

Under Tuskegee Airmen, it says, "They Fought Two Wars."

  • What do you think that means?

The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of young Black men who took the opportunity to train as pilots for World War II.

It was supposed to be an experiment because some people didn't believe that Black men had the intelligence and physical skills to complete the difficult training necessary to become pilots. Much of American society, including the Armed Forces, was still segregated in the 1930s.

In 1938, the U.S. government established the Civilian Pilot Training Program at 13 colleges nationwide to train young pilots for free. Flight training is expensive, and during the Depression, U.S. authorities worried they might not have enough pilots because people couldn't afford the training.

At first, Black students were not accepted, but after pressure from the public, the program was expanded to include women and African Americans.

In 1939, World War II began in Europe. The U.S. Army needed more pilots, so they expanded the CPTP to start an experiment to train Black men and see if they could become military pilots.

They chose the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and built an airfield there. The Institute had been initially established as a school for formerly enslaved people.

Tuskegee, Alabama: Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. Moton Field's historic core includes Hangars 1 and 2, the Control Tower, and the Skyway Club. It was also a training area for WWII African American airmen, the Red Tails.

Watch the following video for a quick introduction to the Tuskegee Airmen.

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In 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Tuskegee Institute and even took a plane ride with the flight instructor, showcasing her support for the project.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Chief Anderson, Chief Flight Instructor of the Tuskegee Airmen

Even though the pilot trainees were working diligently and proving that they could handle both the physical and mental challenges of training, they were still confronted with prejudice and ill-treatment. Some White Army officers refused to work with them, and the Army leadership was initially reluctant to send them into combat.

They struggled in the civilian world as well. Some local businesses refused to provide for their needs. Whenever they had a break from training, they had to patronize segregated restaurants and hotels.

The first class at Tuskegee graduated in March of 1942. They were called the 99th Fighter Squadron. The 99th was the first Black fighter squadron to be sent overseas.

At the end of 1944, four Black squadrons fought in Italy. Their main job was to escort bombing planes and keep them safe from enemy attacks. They succeeded at this task to such a degree that the bomber pilots began to ask, "Who are those red-tailed angels?"

Tuskegee Airmen - Circa May 1942 to Aug 1943 Location unknown, likely Southern Italy or North Africa

The reference red-tailed refers to their planes, which were recognizable by their noses and tails that were painted red.

The P-51 Mustang flown by the Red Tail Project

The Tuskegee Airmen also flew combat missions, targeting enemy infrastructure like bridges and railroad tracks. Overall, they were overwhelmingly successful.

The Tuskegee Airmen earned eight Purple Hearts, fourteen Bronze Stars, three Distinguished Unit Citations, and 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

There were 992 pilots trained at Tuskegee Institute: 450 of them flew combat missions overseas, 12 were killed in training, 68 were killed in action, and 44 were captured.

Sadly, when the Airmen returned home, they were still treated with prejudice and segregated from White people. However, in 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order ending segregation in the military.

Over time, Americans have greatly appreciated the sacrifices and contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen.

In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the Tuskegee Airmen a Congressional Gold Medal, the country's highest honor given to a civilian. Three hundred of the Airmen were there to receive this well-deserved award.

U.S. President George W. Bush presents the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen on Thursday, March 29, 2007, at the U.S. Capitol.

Then, in 2020, President Donald Trump honored the last living Tuskegee Airman, Charles McGee, in his State of the Union Address.

After serving thirty years, McGee retired as a Colonel from the Air Force in 1973. President Trump gave him an honorary promotion to Brigadier General and thanked him on behalf of the country for his service.

State of the Union Gallery guest 100-year-old retired Tuskegee Airman Brigadier General Charles McGee of Bethesda, Md., as he’s introduced by President Donald J. Trump Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020

McGee died in 2022, so there are no more living Tuskegee Airman, but their memory lives on.

Now, review what you're learning in the Got It? section!

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