Inferiority or Exclusivity?
“The New York Rens were the first all-black fully professional African-American owned basketball team, formed in Harlem in 1923. That year, basketball manager Robert ‘Bob’ Douglas made a deal with Harlem real estate developer William Roach, the owner of the new Renaissance Ballroom and Casino.
The team’s original lineup included Clarence ‘Fats’ Jenkins and James ‘Pappy’ Ricks, as well as Frank ‘Strangler’ Forbes and Leon Monde.
All four of these men also played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. All four would also be enshrined collectively as part of the 1932-33 team that was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a unit in 1963.
By 1924-25 the ‘Rens’ had won the first of many Colored Basketball World Championships and thereafter proceeded to dominate not just black basketball, but all of basketball for the next 25 years.
During that period, the Rens routinely beat white national champion basketball teams like the Original Celtics, the Philadelphia SPHAS, the Oshkosh All Stars, and the Indianapolis Kautskys. The irony is that the leagues in which these teams played did not allow African American players or teams to join.
In 1939, the New York Rens won the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball, an invitation-only tourney with a field made up of America’s twelve best pro hoops teams. The title game saw the Rens defeating the Oshkosh All Stars. Oshkosh had been the champion of the National Basketball League, a whites-only league….
…Though the 1933 New York Rens were enshrined as a team, surprisingly only four Renaissance players have ever been enshrined individually: Zachary ‘Zack’ Clayton (2017), John ‘Boy Wonder’ Isaacs (2015), William ‘Pop’ Gates (1989), and Charles ‘Tarzan’ Cooper (1977).” (Black FIves Foundation, n.d.)
I had never heard of the Rens before reading this article. My dad is an avid sports fan, and I think I have heard all his sports stories 657 times. This article changed the way I viewed the sports teams of my dad’s era. I knew that blacks weren’t allowed to play on white sports teams, but I never understood that part of the reason was to restrict competition and keep the spoils of the most lucrative leagues to themselves.
When I watch movies like “42,” the story of Jackie Robinson, starring the late Chadwick Boseman, the racism jumps out at you so loudly that you think white players just didn’t want to share the same spaces as black players. But maintaining the exclusivity through the elimination of competition was also part of it. Maintaining exclusivity, in this case, was essential to eliminating competition and to perpetuating the myth of inferiority.
The great, lost story of the Rens showed me that it wasn’t that the predecessors of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain weren’t allowed to play because the white teams thought they wouldn’t be good. It was because 30 years earlier, the Rens had shown that they not only would be good but possibly dominate. According to this article, the Rens won the “inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball in 1939. There were 10 such world championships in all through 1948, and African American teams won three of them.” Recently Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, who was a member of the original lineup, was selected to the NBA‘s Hall of Fame class of 2021.
I’m not practicing reverse racism here and implying that every black athlete was better than every white athlete. I’m just exposing the truth that part of the reason that black athletes were excluded was that on some level, the exclusion of black athletes was needed to withhold the spoils of the sport for white athletes.
I have already stated that the exclusion of black athletes helped perpetuate the myth that white athletes were superior. However, it also eliminated paths for black men to raise their socioeconomic status.
We know jumping forward in history that black athletes are some of the wealthiest people in American society. Their affluence has a broad lateral impact on their immediate families and the communities they serve. It also has a generational reach as their kids grow up in better communities, attend better schools, and sometimes become successful in athletics themselves. Ken Griffey Jr., Patrick Mahomes, Stephen Curry, to name a notable few.
But what about the Air Force? If the Air Force is a mirror of society because all Air Force members come from society, is the exclusion-minimize competition-maintain-the-myth-of superiority model applicable? Of course, it is.
For the Air Force, this exclusivity-superiority dialogue starts with fighter pilots. I wrote an entire book, “Black Ceiling,” whose focus was fighter pilots because this exclusive group attains more promotions to four-star general than any other. It is the most exclusive group in the Air Force, and membership begins in a fighter cockpit. It makes sense then that if someone were trying to maintain exclusivity and dominate the landscape of the Air Force’s senior leadership that they would start here.
By way of comparison, the Tuskegee Airmen are to today’s fighter pilots, what the Rens were to the NBA of my father’s generation. They were some of the best combat fighter pilots in Air Force history. However, their bomber pilots were never allowed to “take the field,” if you will, and were never deployed in combat.
In “Black Pilot,” I shared an interview with Tuskegee Airman, bomber pilot, Lt. Col. Robert Ashby. In that interview, I asked Lt. Col. Ashby why he thought the black bomber pilots weren’t allowed to deploy.
“Bob: Somewhere along there when we got, I think it was ‘44, the latter part of ’43 or 44 we had four squadrons over in Europe. The whole 332nd fighter group was over there. The 99th was separate at the time, but once they got all three squadrons over and the Composite Group of the 332nd fighter group, the 99th was ordered back from the attachment they had with the white groups back to the 332nd. And the Tuskegee Airmen was the only group with four squadrons. The normal composition of squadrons at that time was three squadrons. And the 332nd fighter group was the only outfit over there with four squadrons. Which is not the normal setup. And they decided at that time, with the guys continually graduating and getting ready to go overseas, they did not want any more black overseas pilots. They did not want anymore because they weren’t going to start another group. They weren’t going to put them with attachment to white groups and all that. They had a group over there 332nd, and that was it. And all the pilots that were graduating continued to fly and gain more experience here in the States, waiting for something to happen. And then, of course, the Air Corps got wind that people were wondering why they're not sending these blacks overseas when they needed fighter pilots over there or whatever. They weren’t sending them overseas. They were here in the states flying around at Tuskegee. So, then they came up with the idea that they would start the 477th Bomb Group so that you know, they'll have something for them to do. And in my opinion, the 477th Bomb Group was never envisioned to be completed and be a full-scale bomber group ready to go overseas.
Bob: Anytime that things happened in training, well, first of all, they went to Godman Air Base, which is a small airfield like one of the little, like Glendale airport here in Phoenix. And they had four squadrons of B-25s there. There was hardly any room to move around and do anything. Guys had to live maybe thirty-five miles away from the base because Godman was a small town. And to find accommodations, people were all over the countryside finding places to live. The white instructors who were instructing the bomber group there, they all and even the commander, they had housing over at Fort Knox. So, all they did was just go over to Fort Knox, and they had housing and clubs and everything. Whereas the blacks over at Godman, they had a really overcrowded Air Base, the planes people, and everything. They had inadequate housing; everything there was really poor. Some guys were living in shacks at one time until they could find something better."
(Thompson, The Air Force's Black Pilot Training Experience, 2018)
I wish Bob Ashby was still here so that I could call him up and chat with him about it more. We both lived in Phoenix at the time of this last interview. He passed away this past year. I miss him, and I am doing my best to honor his legacy by sharing his quotes as much as I can. I believe that Lt. Col Ashby’s rationale of why black bomber pilots weren’t allowed to fly has merit, based on his first-hand recollection.One of my favorite Tuskegee Airmen, Oliver Goodall, also a bomber pilot, shared Bob Ashby’s belief that the Army Air Corps never intended to deploy the 477th Bomb group but created it to placate protests about black pilots not being used to support the war effort.
However, I think that there was a more significant reason the Air Force didn’t deploy black bomber pilots. On the surface, it didn’t make sense at a time when white bomber pilots were dying by the thousands.
“During the peak of WWII, being a member of a heavy bomber crew meant you were incredibly brave, and you put your country over yourself — it was that dangerous.
Many considered the occupation to be a death sentence. Nearly 71 percent of the bomber’s crew were either killed or labeled as missing in action, which accounts for approximately 100,000 service members.” (Kirkpatrick, 2021)
“Number of bombers lost by each heavy bomber group in the 8th Air Force during World War II
These statistics came from the 398th BG newsletter. These numbers match up with what I have seen listed by individual unit histories and in reference books. It also matches up with the wall in front of the American Air Museum before the unit names were worn away by rain...
(Table committed but included in the book)
I believe that Tuskegee Airmen black bomber pilots were not allowed to fly in all-black bomber units like their fighter pilot counterparts because of the importance that America’s military leadership placed on the role of bombers. I believe that it was not just racism and the desire not to have more black men in the combat theater.
I believe there also existed in the Air Force’s predecessor, the Army Air Corps, a desire to maintain a whites-only exclusivity for the bomber mission. I believe the desire to maintain this exclusivity was so strong that black bomber pilots were not allowed to join the fight.
The Army Air Corps considered bombing Germany’s industrial base the most important aspect of winning the war.
“…the Schweinfurt Raid was the climax of a week of strikes against German industrial targets. Between October 8 and 14, 1943, the Eighth Air Force flew 1,342 heavy bomber sorties, losing a total of 152 bombers (11.3 percent), with another 6 percent receiving heavy damage. During the entire month of October, the Eighth lost a total of 214 heavy bombers, almost 10 percent of the total number dispatched. Lost and damaged planes constituted more than half the sorties flown during the month. At that rate of attrition, an entirely new bomber force would be required every three months in order to maintain the Allied bomber offensive.
After the prohibitive losses sustained in October 1943, the Eighth Air Force suspended deep bomber strikes into German territory. Two premises of daylight strategic bombing—that bombers would be able to get through enemy defenses and back without escorts, and that destroying the enemy’s industrial base would cripple its war effort—appeared to be greatly mistaken. American air leaders, recognizing the inability of unescorted heavy bombers to get through and bomb German industry without excessive losses, questioned the very foundation of American air strategy. But why did American air leaders initially believe their heavy bombers would always get through, and what were the consequences of the American strategic doctrine when applied in the skies over the Third Reich? How has American air doctrine changed as a result?
The airplane, initially used during World War I in a reconnaissance role to locate enemy troop and artillery movements and concentrations, evolved throughout the conflict to perform all of the roles identified with modern air power—including strategic bombing. Although it was an immature weapons system during the Great War, the airplane’s enormous potential fueled the imaginations of interwar air theorists, foremost among them Italy’s Giulio Douhet.
Assuming that population and industrial centers would be vulnerable to fleets of heavy bombers, Douhet advocated attacking an enemy nation’s urban areas and factories with explosives, incendiaries and poisonous gas—with no distinction being made between combatant and noncombatant. Douhet believed that the impact of strategic bombing would simultaneously demoralize an enemy’s civilian population and destroy its capacity to wage war.
During the 1920s, Douhet’s theories and those of air power advocate Brig. Gen. William ‘Billy’ Mitchell gained champions within the U.S. Army Air Corps, and strategic bombing doctrine began to be reflected in its field manuals. Chief among this new generation of bomber advocates in the late 1930s was the leader of the Army Air Corps, General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold. As the commander in chief of the American air service, General Arnold surrounded himself with ‘bomber men,’ disciples of daylight strategic precision bombing. According to Arnold and his top commanders, the primary purpose of air power in Europe during the coming conflicts would be strategic bombing. Strategic bombing was the only major contribution the Airmen could make to the war effort that was largely independent of the Army and Navy. If air power was to show its capabilities as an equal partner to ground and naval forces, it would be done through the successes of strategic bombing.” (Carey, 1998)
The bomber force was the critical component to the Army Air Corps’ “strategic bombing doctrine,” as reflected even in all “its field manuals.” Using baseball and tennis analogies, the bomber force, its pilots, and crews were the “big leagues” or playing on “Center Court.”
When we think of fighter aircraft today, we think of air-to-air combat and “dogfights” like in a “Top Gun” movie. But fighter pilots and crews gained greater prominence only as technological advances made it possible for them to support bombers by escorting them to their targets.
“Could Army Air Forces’ planners and leaders not have foreseen that German fighters would inflict unacceptable and unsustainable losses to the bombers unless they were escorted by protecting fighters? Why wasn’t an effective escort fighter available before late 1943? Were Army Air Forces leaders blinded to the flaws in the bombing strategy they had developed?
A close look at the historical facts demonstrates that it was not ignorance, hubris, or a misplaced commitment to their own thinking that led them to conclude that in 1942 and through the fall of 1943 the concept of unescorted daylight precision bombing was sound. Rather, it was a cold logic based on what was known and knowable at the time. To understand why this is so, it is necessary to understand the context of the times in which the planners and leaders worked.
The U.S. concept of strategic bombardment derived from the theories of airpower thinkers like Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who saw what even the primitive airpower of World War I could do. The resulting concepts were developed and refined at the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) at Maxwell Field in Alabama from 1926 until the beginning of the war in Europe. Although the ACTS taught these concepts to many airpower advocates, its doctrine lacked formal War Department approval. Accordingly, the spread of the doctrine was initially limited. The ACTS strategic bombing doctrine included the following components:
• The national objective of war is to break the enemy’s will to resist and force the enemy to submit to our will.
• The accomplishment of this goal requires offensive warfare.
• The special mission of air is the attack on the entire enemy national structure to dislocate its military, political, economic, and social activities.
• The disruption of the enemy’s industrial network is the real target because such a disruption might produce a collapse sufficient to induce surrender…
…Even though the Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the USAAF, began a program in 1940 to explore ways to extend the range of fighters, the prevailing attitude of the Air Corps senior leadership was that the complete technology package for an effective, long-range, single-seat escort fighter was simply not available. Air Corps planners noted in 1941, ‘The technical improvements to the strategic bombardment airplane are or can be sufficient to overcome the pursuit airplane.’ But they also noted, ‘It is unwise to neglect development of escort fighters designed to enable bombardment formations to fight through to the objective.’
As early as 1940, Lt. Col. Hal George, a bomber advocate and planner, was telling General Arnold that it appeared to him that bombers would definitely need fighter protection. But the aircraft envisioned by these planners was not a single-seat, high-performance fighter, but rather a convoy defender, a B-17 or similar large multi-engine aircraft modified to carry more armor, more guns, and more ammunition. Such a prototype, the YB-40, was to later prove in 1942 to be both costly and a complete failure in combat. In 1941, Arnold appointed a board of pursuit and matériel officers to recommend the future development of escort fighter aircraft. The board could not overcome the seeming disparity between the operational requirements for an effective escort fighter and the technology then available. The board made no recommendations.” (Pfeffer, 2019)
One of the greatest elements of the Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy was how successfully they performed as fighter escorts during bomber missions. However, now as I reflect on it, I see that their greatest legacy is tainted by a racist, exclusionary construct that never let them compete as pilots in the airframes that America’s military deemed most crucial to the fight.
History tells us that through social and political pressure and the perseverance of the Tuskegee Airmen’s military leader, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., black men were allowed to become pilots. But just as the Army had relegated black men to service and support positions in the infantry, it relegated them to supporting roles in the Army Air Corps.
Though all-black bomber crews were created and trained, they were never allowed to join the fight, even as white crews were dying by the tens of thousands. I believe that racist concepts about the capabilities of black men are the reason that they were only allowed to fly in “support” roles as fighter escorts and never in leading roles where they would drop bombs on Germany’s industrial complex—the top goal of the Army Air Corps.
These sentiments about the capabilities of black men were poured into the foundations of what later became the U.S. Air Force in 1947. What was also poured into the foundation of the Air Force was that the most capable men should fill their top leadership positions and direct their flying combat forces.
In WWII, under the prevailing doctrine of strategic bombardment, this meant that most senior leadership positions would be held by “bomber men.” I believe that is one of the never-before-examined explanations for why black men were allowed to fly fighters in combat and not bombers.
In “Black Ceiling,” in a chapter entitled “Rise of the Fighter Generals,” I discuss in great detail the shift in thinking during the 1970s as to what types of pilots should be running the Air Force. Specifically, the highest levels of military leadership decided that fighter pilots should fill the most senior positions in the Air Force. They then began to take steps to promote fighter generals earlier/faster than their bomber counterparts. This change in the type of backgrounds desired at the highest levels of the Air Force coincided with a change in the Air Force’s doctrine.
The Vietnam War helped spark this significant shift in the Air Force’s doctrinal focus away from strategic bombing to tactical interdiction. Tactical interdiction meaning a reliance upon fighter aircraft to win the nonnuclear conflicts that the Air Force was expected to fight in the future. So, in a sense, fighter aircraft and fighter pilots were emerging out of the shadow of bombers and bomber pilots. What had been deemed a lesser role was now becoming the preeminent one, en route to what we see today with fighter pilots dominating the Air Force’s senior leadership landscape.
As the Air Force began to redefine the fast-track path to senior leadership as one that featured a combat fighter pilot resume, it ran into the problem of the Tuskegee Airmen and their successors. Why am I characterizing the Tuskegee Airmen as a problem? I said before that I believe that the leadership of the Army Air Corps relented and let the Tuskegee Airmen fly fighters in combat vs. bombers because strategic bombers were considered the most critical contributors to the war effort.
Even as rapid technological advances increased the capabilities of fighter aircraft, their primary combat role was viewed as escorting bombers. I don’t have time to go into it, but we didn’t have precision-guided munitions back then that fighters could use to destroy airfields. Dropping large numbers of bombs from a bomber was still the most effective way to destroy large ground targets. Back to the problem of the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Army Air Corps had allowed this large group of black pilots to gain combat time in fighter aircraft. In fact, these black pilots had garnered an impressive record in combat. Now that the Air Force had decided that fighters were the “it” career field, the sure-fire path to senior leadership, were black pilots going to be allowed to start ascending on this path to the most senior leadership positions in the Air Force? In the late 1970s? Of course not.
It’s a harsh comparison, but the one that comes to mind is the Native American “problem” as it pertains to America’s westward expansion. It was determined that the Native Americans had to be moved off the land they inhabited to make America’s growth towards the West possible. Similarly, the Air Force chose to rid themselves of the black fighter pilots who were occupying these now highly coveted fighter billets to grow the next generation of fighter pilot senior leaders.
In “Black Ceiling,” I refer to the purge of black fighter pilots in 1978 under General Wilbur Creech, the Commander of Tactical Air Command, as “The Great Black Out”:
“The greatest tragedy of the Creech system is that it not only excluded minority fighter pilots for development but that it eliminated the largest group of senior black fighter pilots with combat experience that the Air Force has ever seen. According to Mike Worden, author of the Rise of The Fighter Generals, ‘Doctrinal, procurement, and budgetary shifts towards tactical airpower in the 1970s manifested themselves proportionally in greater numbers of fighter wings, aircraft, and pilots retained during defense cutbacks through the mid-1970s’ (Worden, 1998). The greatest reduction of black fighter pilots that the Air Force has ever seen occurred at a time when the Air Force was in great need of fighter pilots and at a time when fighter pilots were being ‘retained.’
The data on this drawdown is staggering and was provided in December 2003 by the HQ USAF Directorate of Personnel and approved for release by the Air Force Chief of Staff to the Defense Business Board. In Fiscal Year (FY) 1978 (Gen. Creech’s command tenure: May 1, 1978, thru December 31, 1984), there were 11,724 nonminority fighter pilots and 1,391 minority fighter pilots (948 Capts, 113 Majors, 153 Lt. Colonels, 79 Colonels, 3 Brigadier Generals, one Major General). In FY 1979, there were 11,526 nonminority fighter pilots and only 372 minority fighter pilots (209 Capts, 47 Majors, 29 Lt. Colonels, 11 Colonels, and zero generals). (Gen. Chappie James moved outside the Department of the Air Force). At a time when nonminority fighter pilot reductions were statistically insignificant, minority fighter pilot reductions skyrocketed…
…The mighty cadre of black pilots that was built after the Tuskegee Airmen almost became extinct by a catastrophic event that almost exactly coincides with Gen. Creech’s assumption of command at Tactical Air Command. It can be likened to the theorized meteor strike that wiped out the dinosaurs. Though the scientists have found no evidence of an impact, they maintain that only a meteor strike could have caused such catastrophic results.
Similarly, though I could find no evidence of an impact, something was launched, a personnel decision, or a tailored downsizing directive that resulted in a devastating reduction in black fighter pilots with combat experience. I have called this devastating reduction in black combat-experienced fighter pilots the ‘Great Black Out.’
It is my belief that this is the single greatest reason that the Air Force black pilot landscape looks the way it does today. The loss of such huge numbers of black fighter pilots is incalculable in terms of its impact on future squadron and group and higher-level commanders. The loss is substantial and irrevocable. There will never be 1,300-plus minority fighter pilots in the Air Force again. There will never again be such a pool of people to draw from to fill senior fighter pilot positions.” (Thompson, The Air Force's Black Ceiling, 2016)
Looking through the numbers, 124 black Lieutenant Colonels with combat fighter experience and 68 full Colonels were eliminated. I have not been able to figure out who the three brigadier generals and one major general were who were caught up in this purge. I previously and wrongly thought that General Daniel “Chappie” might have been among them and that he disappeared from the Tactical Air Command rolls/totals by being assigned outside of TAC. A review of General James' bio, however, shows that he was promoted to four-star rank in 1975.
The exclusivity that the NBA practiced in my dad’s generation supported the illusion of the superiority of white players in that era. The “Great Black Out” was needed to create exclusivity in the fighter pilot senior officer ranks and support the illusion of superiority for white pilots that still exists today.
Without this purge, who knows what the fighter pilot senior leadership landscape would have looked like in the 1980s when I joined the Air Force or in 2010 when I retired? It likely wouldn't have been as drastic as the change between my father’s NBA and my kid’s NBA, but it would have been significant.
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