In spite of adversity and limited opportunities, African Americans played a significant role in U.S. military history over the past 300 years. They were denied military leadership roles and skilled training because of societal ignorance and prejudice. Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military. Civil rights organizations and the Black press exerted pressure that resulted in the formation of an all African American pursuit squadron based in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1941. They became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
“Tuskegee Airmen” refers to all who were involved in the so-called “Tuskegee Experiment,” the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.
The Tuskegee Airmen overcame segregation and prejudice to become one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II. They proved conclusively that African Americans could fly and maintain sophisticated combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen’s achievements, together with the men and women who supported them, paved the way for the full integration of the U.S. military.
A native of Cleveland, Samuel L. Washington graduated from the Tuskegee program on June 27, 1944 and was appointed as flight officer. With his fellow classmates, Officer Washington was assigned to the 99th squadron of the 332nd. Based in Italy, flying P-40 and P-51 fighting aircraft, the squadron provided air support for numerous bomber missions over Germany. After retiring from military service, Lieutenant Washington eventually settled in San Jose with his wife Mary. The decorated war veteran died in 1981. Postmortem, he received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006.
This past week, Mary Parks Washington and her daughter Jan made a remarkable donation of artifacts and documents pertaining to Samuel’s service with the Air Force. Included in this unique donation are his duffel bag, flight jacket, head gear, goggles, enlistment papers, various medals, and dog tag.
To honor the service of Lieutenant Samuel L. Washington and his fellow servicemen, these newly received artifacts will be on display in the lobby of the Pacific Hotel during this Saturday’s August 4th Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive event at History Park.