Date of Interview: 05/18/2012
Dr. Roscoe Brown served as one of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. As squadron commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, Brown flew 68 long-range missions from August of 1944 to March of 1945. For his service, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush.
The experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen are highlighted in Red Tails, a film produced by George Lucas [theatrical release date: January 20, 2012]. The film was directed by Anthony Hemingway and based upon a screenplay crafted by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. In support of the DVD release [May 22, 2012], Dr. Roscoe Brown spoke with Clayton Perry about his Air Force experience, life under “Jim Crow,” and the value of education.
Clayton Perry: Long before you became a Tuskegee Airman, at what point in your childhood did you become interested in aviation?
Roscoe Brown: At that time, aviation was very new, and Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic Ocean. When I was a kid about six years old, my parents took me to the Smithsonian Institution to look at the Spirit of St. Louis plane, and I became interested in aviation. Aviation was only about thirty years old when Lindbergh flew across the ocean. During the 1930s, they had air races. Many of us made airplane models, and we flew models of World War II planes and racing planes. Many of us wanted to be pilots, but because of the racism and the segregation, we didn’t have the opportunity. I grew up in Washington, D.C., which was a segregated city, and we went to all-black schools. That opportunity didn’t come until the beginning of World War II when they started the Tuskegee Airmen.
Clayton Perry: Before joining the Air Force, you attended Springfield College. What was your area of study?
Roscoe Brown: Springfield College was an integrated college. There were sixteen blacks out of about 650 students. I ended up being the valedictorian of my class. I majored in health and physical education, which is now known as sports medicine. I had a triple major in chemistry and premedical studies. When I came back from the service, I went for my Ph.D., which I got in the field of exercise physiology and sports medicine.
Clayton Perry: When you arrived at Tuskegee, what was your initial impression of Alabama?
Roscoe Brown: Well, as you know, the Southern part of the country was racially segregated, and the segregation was very brutal in some instances and very demeaning in other instances. You couldn’t go to restaurants. You couldn’t go to theatres. That was the law of the land in the Southern part of the country, and we couldn’t do anything about it. But the reason they picked Tuskegee is that there was a famous college there – [Tuskegee Institute] – which was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. They had a substantial number of black professionals – doctors, lawyers, and professors. That environment was a positive environment. In addition, following the stupidity of segregation, the military spent a million dollars to build a separate air base to train the Tuskegee Airmen. The pilots that trained us were white pilots, most of whom really believed that we could learn to fly. The ones who didn’t were eventually transferred. So, we had some good instruction and some good support, and it’s because of that support, and our own energy, and our own desire to be the best we could be that we ended up to be as good we were.
Clayton Perry: How long was the training process? And at what point did you begin combat flying?
Roscoe Brown: The Tuskegee experience started in March of 1941. Pearl Harbor was December of 1941. The first class graduated in March of 1942. The length of the training for the average trainee was nine months, so that between the military orientation and your going into the service, it was about a year between the time you first went in and you finally got your wings. I went in, in March of 1943, and I got my wings in March of 1944. I completed my combat transition in July of 1944, and in August of 1944, I was flying combat missions, which I flew until April of 1945.
Clayton Perry: You eventually became squadron commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group. Could you talk about your rise up the ranks?
Roscoe Brown: Well, when you start out as a new pilot, you become a “wingman” for a pilot. We flew in groups of four planes. We had a flight leader and a wingman, and an element leader and a wingman. So, you start out as a wingman, and you’re pretty good. You get moved up to element leader and then you get to be flight leader. I was flight leader after about maybe twenty missions. I flew sixty-eight missions. At the end of the war, I was commander of my squadron. Prior to that I was the operations officer for the squadron, which meant I established who was going to fly and where they were going to fly. I led my squadron when we were on the mission to Berlin – which is depicted in Red Tails – and that’s when I shot down the jet over Berlin.
Clayton Perry: Wow! Were you ever concerned about your plane going down at all? Did you have any close calls?
Roscoe Brown: Well, in the black press, we got a lot of publicity, and actually in the white press, because there had been very few German jets shot down – particularly over Berlin. We got some recognition in the white press as well. They would call us the “All-Negro Fighter Group,” and among the white bomber pilots, we got a reputation as being the “Red-Tail Angels,” because we stayed so close to the bombers and protected them, which some of the other groups didn’t do. So, we were, in a sense, heroes among the bomber pilots and particularly in the black community.
Clayton Perry: After you left the Air Force, you went back to school – earning an M.A. and a Ph.D. as well. Talk a little bit about your transition back into civilian life.
Roscoe Brown: I had the option of going to medical school or working for my Ph.D. I liked the idea of sports medicine, and I did some work for the Air Force on looking at the physiological effects of exercise and fatigue. And because of my background in chemistry, I did a lot of research there. After I got my Ph.D., then I worked to help start the American College of Sports Medicine. After that I got involved in educational research, particularly in testing. My technical specialty is psychometrics, which is the field where you develop tests like the SAT and the College Board and the state assessment exams. That’s what I have done professionally. For a long period of time, I had been a college administrator. I was president of one of the colleges in New York – [Bronx Community College] –for sixteen years, and I have been the director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the graduate school of City University for about sixteen years. So, I’ve been pretty busy.
Clayton Perry: When you look at those two worlds – the Armed Forces and academia – how did they go hand in hand? At the same time, why was education so important to you in your personal and professional lives?
Roscoe Brown: Well, for one thing, many of us who went into the military did not intend to stay. Several did stay and became colonels. Some became generals. So, we went back to civilian life. Some of us became lawyers, some became doctors, some became professors. I had the opportunity to become a professor. I was one of the first black professors at New York University, and I become one of the leaders of the faculty there because of my work. I didn’t really think much about aviation. When I first came back from overseas, I wanted to fly with the airlines for a little bit. I was told that they didn’t hire black pilots, which they didn’t at that time. The only place for pilots was in the Air Force, and I didn’t want to stay in the Air Force. I wanted to develop my career. Our objective as achieving African-Americans was to do so well that it would help other African-American youth to also succeed, and that’s why education has been so important.
Clayton Perry: You’ve been given so many awards over the years. What are you most proud of when you have people look at your legacy?
Roscoe Brown: I always tell people I’m most proud of the fact that I had four great children, but beyond that, I’m very proud of the fact that the Tuskegee Airmen were finally, collectively, recognized by Congress with a Congressional Gold Medal for outstanding service to the country. That’s an award that I cherish. The other awards depend upon the context. Some of them are because of my personal achievements, and some of them are because I’ve been involved in various causes to help change the world. I was with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America as a board member for many, many years, and I helped to develop the urban program of the Boys & Girls Clubs which is now the largest youth-centered organization here in the United States.
Clayton Perry: The Boys & Girls Club honored you with their Humanitarian Award. What lasting message do you want to leave with young people in particular?
Roscoe Brown: My message is to strive for excellence, no matter where you are and no matter what the obstacles are, because excellence helps you to overcome the obstacles, it helps you to overcome prejudice, and it helps you to be a more effective citizen in the community. So, my idea is to strive for excellence.
For more information on Red Tails, visit the film’s official website: http://redtails2012.com