Roscoe Brown: Breaking Barriers

Former Tuskegee Airman Roscoe Brown with BMCC students.

Former Tuskegee Airman Roscoe Brown with BMCC students.
January 6, 2009

Her head focused down at her food and open book, a student eating lunch in the BMCC cafeteria suddenly noticed something peculiar: a crowd had very quickly formed — and was still growing — at the door of the Hudson Room, which was already packed to the brim. Students huddled around the room’s entrance on their toes, wanting to get just a glimpse of the person inside.

“Who’s in there?” she asked the people around her. “Must be someone big.” And she was right: it was Tuskegee Airman Roscoe Brown.

In a visit to BMCC, the former World War II combat pilot shared with students and student-veterans his experience as one of the nation’s first Black pilots, and his views on the current plight of veteran care in the U.S.

Brown was brought to campus by BMCC’s Organization for Student Veterans (OSV), a student group that helps veterans transition from the battlefield to the classroom, and society in general.

Recalling the Tuskegee Experience

In 1941, the U.S. Congress passed legislation forcing the U.S. Army Air Corps to form an all-black combat unit. Within months, the Tuskegee Institute — the university founded by Booker T. Washington — initiated service training that would result in the “Tuskegee Airmen.”

Yet at the time, the U.S. was still seven years away from a fully integrated armed forces, 13 years away from the landmark Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education case, and 25 years from the National Voting Rights Act. Prior to the Airmen, no U.S. military pilots had been Black, and the move was met with reluctance.

“Racist stereotypes held that African-Americans couldn’t do certain things; that they didn’t have the intelligence, the courage, or the leadership,” said Brown. “Of course, we ended up proving that wrong.”

But many wondered: even if Brown and his Black co-pilots were given the chance to serve in the military, why would they want to go fight for a nation that didn’t yet provide equal rights to Blacks? Initial U.S. policy had Blacks serving non-dangerous supporting roles to white soldiers; wasn’t it just better to stay safe?

“From the Revolutionary War on, African-Americans, just like everyone else, wanted to fight for their freedom, and the freedom of the country,” said Brown. “Part of that is putting your life on the line, and that is what all of us decided to do.”

Not only did Brown and his co-pilots — 994 of them in total — put their lives on the line: they were good at it, too. Brown, former commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group (a.k.a. the “Tuskegee Airmen”), flew in Europe, and was one of only fifteen pilots who shot down the newly produced and highly sophisticated German Me-262 jet fighter. The impressive performance by Brown and his fellow pilots contributed heavily to former President Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the U.S. military in 1948.

“It was a hard climb,” Brown said of becoming a Tuskegee Airman, “but when you’re doing something that you think is right, you put every effort into it.”

On March 29, 2007, Brown and the other surviving Tuskegee Airmen, and their widows, were recognized for their dedication and service, when they received the Congressional Gold Medal. The Airmen were also recently invited to President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, according to The New York Times.

The Rise of Terrorism

During his speech, Brown recalled that he had the chance to meet one of the German pilots he shot down during the war.

“And he wasn’t a Nazi, he was just doing what I was doing for my country — he was called to active duty. I did not hate him; I did not want to kill him. I just wanted to destroy his plane to keep him from harming my fellow combat pilots.”

“For those of us who flew in combat, it was a contest,” he said. “The question was ‘can you win the contest and shoot somebody down?’ But, the thing is, you weren’t trying to kill them.”

To a degree, Brown said, the rise of terrorism has changed warfare.

“The rules of war have not really changed, but the way countries and people interpret them have, and that has to do with the impact of terrorism. It’s made everything very complicated,” Brown said, noting how attacks on innocent civilians can change a person’s perception of the enemy and how to properly fight back.

“But I believe we should adhere to the strongest standards of military justice,” he said. “We should not torture people, and we should not put people into situations where their basic rights are lost.”

“Hoping for Good Things” for Veterans

Sixty years ago, much was different, some for the better, some for the worse. For Brown, the way veterans were treated six decades ago puts to shame the way they are treated now.

“The country respected veterans much more back then than they do now,” he said. “There was a GI Bill that made it possible for me to go get my doctorate degree, and at the same time get a stipend so I could support my family. They had programs to help you buy houses, they had veteran’s insurance, and at that time the veteran’s hospitals were doing a great time with rehabilitation.”

But social backlash against the war in Vietnam, Brown said, meant veteran benefits were not supported the way they should have been. With the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being waged, and more veterans coming home, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been held under the microscope by the media and society, and much criticism has been leveled at what has been called inadequate care for veterans.

“It is said that freedom is based on the activities of the people who defend us in various conflicts of one type or another, whether we think the conflicts are right or not,” Brown said. “It’s the veterans who provide that service and it’s a shame that in this society we have not adequately rewarded and supported our veterans.”

“Now with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have to do more, and that is the reason why organizations like BMCC’s Organization for Student Veterans should keep speaking up, keep going to Congress, because there are many Congress members who don’t understand how bad things have gotten for some of our veterans.”

Put Education Atop the List

But, while veterans must fight for what they deserve, Brown stressed that they also focus on education.

After the war, Brown earned his M.A., then Ph.D, from New York University. After teaching there for 25 years, he was named president of Bronx Community College, where he stayed for 16 years. He is founder and director of the CUNY Center for Urban Education Policy, and a professor at the CUNY Graduate School.

“The most important thing for veterans to do,” Brown said, “is to get that education, because that education helps open the door to anything else you want to do in life. Get that education.”


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