As an African-American boy growing up in Washington, D.C. during the 1920s, Roscoe Brown attended segregated public schools. "But you could go into public buildings, so I spent a lot of my childhood in museums like the Smithsonian," he explains.
During a visit to the Smithsonian when he was five years old, he first laid eyes on the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh's plane which flew across the Atlantic just the year before. Needless to say, Brown was absolutely captivated. "This was 1928. The Wright Brothers had first flown in 1903. Lindbergh and his 33 1/2 hour flight over the Atlantic had caught everybody's attention," Brown recalls. "As you get older you realize that younger people think the world was always the way it is now. It wasn't."
From then on he dreamed of flying. "But there were limited opportunities for blacks to learn to fly," says Brown who attended the academically elite Dunbar High School, considered the best segregated high school in the country which trained the first black judge. "During the days of racial segregation and prejudice it was thought that blacks didn't have the ability to do things like fly airplanes or go to medical school." In fact, before 1940, African-Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military.
After pressure from the NAACP, black newspapers and civic groups, an African-American pursuit squadron was formed in 1941. They were trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, to fly and maintain combat aircraft and became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. At the time, Brown was at Springfield College and an ROTC officer. "I resigned my commission and joined the Tuskegee Airmen the day I graduated in 1943," he says. "We became damned good pilots, went overseas, escorted the bombers, got a good record, shot down some planes, and as a result of our activities, the military was desegregated."
Some of the pilots referred to the Tuskegee Airmen as the Red-Tail Angels. "The color of the tails of our P-51s were red and we stayed so close," explains Brown who received a doctorate degree, has a distinguished academic career and is currently director of the City University of New York Graduate Center for Urban Education Policy.
TV legend Norman Lear, who was a radio operator/gunner on B-17 Flying Fortress bombers during World War II, remembers the red tails on the P-51 fighters flown by the Tuskegee Airmen and the delight seeing them. "It was a gift to see that they were flying escort on our missions," says Lear who went on to write, produce and create more than 100 TV shows, including All in the Family, Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons and founded the People For the American Way. "Those guys stayed very close to us in our B-17s. When they were in the air, we felt a little safer. The Tuskegee Airmen stayed with us over the bomb run. They didn't have to stay with us, but they did. Their planes danced in the sky."
In 2007, six decades after their service, Brown and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. "Even the Nazis asked why African-American men would fight for a country that treated them so unfairly. Yet the Tuskegee Airmen were eager to join up," said President George W. Bush at the ceremony. "I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities. And so, on behalf of the office I hold, and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the United States of America."
This Veterans Day on November 11, both Lear and Brown will participate in the New York City Veterans Day Parade.
"The best way to honor the Tuskegee Airmen is for young people to strive to be excellent in science, math, technology and be compassionate human beings recognizing that we all breathe the same air. We all have the same hearts, and we've got to do more to relate to each other," Brown says. "Excellence knows no color. Excellence knows no religion. Excellence is what you're able to do with your skills that you have. And the more we recognize that, the better we are as a country."