At 90 years old, Dr. Roscoe Brown has lived an exemplary life at the forefront of American progress. As a Tuskegee Airman, Brown was one of the first black pilots in United States military. The existence of the Tuskegee Airmen called into question the discriminatory foundations of segregation that not only ruled the South at the time but also influenced attitudes toward African Americans throughout the U.S. In the twilight of his life Brown has not lost a step, and continues to tell his story. “One of the things we try to do as Tuskegee Airmen,” Brown says, “is to encourage youth to pursue excellence and not let obstacles like stereotypes turn them away.”
And there would be no better person to convey this message than Dr. Brown, who lives by the mantra “excellence overcomes prejudice.” For the past 20 years, he has spent his summers and weekends in Sag Harbor Hills, a historically black community. Last year, Brown and Lee Hayes, a fellow Tuskegee Airman from Amagansett, were marshals of the July 4th parade in Southampton.
During World War II, Brown led escort missions, protecting American bombers as they flew over enemy territory toward their targets, hoping to fight off the enemy. Along with the other Airmen, he earned a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007, the highest civilian award in the United States, for his service. But the symbolism of the Tuskeegee Airmen’s role in the war was even more important. “Through our excellence and performance,” Brown says, “people couldn’t deny that African Americans could do anything any other Americans could do.”
“I grew up in a time in the beginning of aviation,” Brown says. “Everybody was excited about Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic in 1927. I lived in Washington, DC as a kid and my parents took me to the Smithsonian where I saw his plane, ‘Spirit of St. Louis.’ I then read his book, We, about the journey.” Brown was also inspired by the African-American pilots who had already begun breaking barriers in American aviation when he was a kid. This included Bessie Coleman, the first African-American stunt pilot; Eugene Bullard, an African-American pilot fighting in France in World War I; and Dr. Albert Forsythe, the first African-American pilot to fly across the U.S. and back, in 1933.
These pioneers set in motion the story of African-American aviation, but the Tuskegee program in Alabama represented the most significant progress towards racial equality at the top levels of the military. The initiative was carried out largely for political reasons. “The black press at that time was very numerous,” according to Brown. “There were about four or five hundred black newspapers throughout the country and there was a newspaper service called the National Negro Press that acted just like the Associated Press, except it talked about the exploits of African Americans. When World War II started there was pressure from the NAACP and the first black leaders for blacks to fly, because the war department in 1925 issued a study that blacks didn’t have the intelligence, the leadership or the coordination to be fighter pilots or to be pilots at all.”
Here are the words of the 1925 report Brown mentions, filed by the Army War College: “In the process of evolution, the American Negro has not progressed as far as the other subspecies of the human family.” As the report makes clear, African Americans’ physical and intellectual capacity was perceived as weaker than that of whites. But aviation would become a symbol of the faulty foundations of this perception, which permeated American culture. “When President Roosevelt ran for reelection in 1940,” Brown says, “he saw the opportunity to capture the black vote, and authorized the program at Tuskegee.”
Of the 3,000 African-American leaders and athletes admitted to the program from colleges around the country, only 1,000 graduated, and of that, 400 actually flew missions. The Tuskegee Airmen were the cream of the crop. Brown was the valedictorian of his class at Springfield College. He played basketball and football, and was one of the first blacks to play lacrosse. “I come from a generation of African Americans where we were always trying to be better,” Brown says. “We were taught that you had to be better than whites in order to move ahead, so we were very competitive.”
The role the Tuskegee Airmen played in the war was not as critical as what they represented to Americans back home. “Through our success in escorting bombers and our outstanding performance as combat pilots, we showed the larger community that we could do anything,” Brown says. “At the end of the war Americans were talking about oppression in Russia and other places, so Harry Truman recognized our success and the success of other black combat units by issuing an executive order in 1948 integrating the military.” In this way, the military, and thereby the Airmen, were at the forefront of desegregation. At the time Truman ordered the military to integrate, American schools and public accommodations were still segregated, and blacks were routinely disenfranchised across the South. “Most people alive today don’t realize how serious and rampant segregation was,” Brown says. “Racism still exists, but segregation was law.”
After the war, Brown entered the world of academia. He earned his doctoral degree from New York University in Exercise Science, helping to found the American College of Sports Medicine, the largest organization of its kind in the world. “We were the first group of people at NYU to do the technical research about the impact of exercise on the body,” Brown says, and “I was one of the first people to major in the physiology of exercise.”
He went on to teach as a professor of education at NYU for 26 years, then served a tenure as the President of Bronx Community College for 16 years and the Graduate Center Director of Urban Education at CUNY for 16 more years. “All in all, it adds up to a lot of years.”
After a lifetime of accomplishments, Brown now gets to relax a little on the East End, spending time with his four children, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. His life out here remains closely tied to African-American history. Sag Harbor Hills, where Brown lives, and neighboring Azurest and Nineveh have been predominately black communities for over 70 years, some of the oldest such communities in the U.S. In the 1930s, when segregation restricted where African Americans could live, middle-class black families from New York began buying vacation homes on the East End from factory workers who lived in the area full-time. These enclaves became the beach retreats for black educators, doctors, lawyers, artists, and, for the past 20 years, a Tuskegee Airman. Generations of families have found a haven in these neighborhoods based around shared values and shared history, a history that Dr. Brown has helped write with his life story.
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