Tuskegee Airman Roscoe Brown Dies At 94

Jul 5, 2016
Originally published on July 5, 2016 6:38 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Roscoe C. Brown was one of the famed Red Tail pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen. He died on Saturday at the age of 94. The Red Tails were pioneers, the first black pilots in the Army Air Corps. Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch team has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Black people cannot fly. That was the assumption of many U.S. military decision-makers before the black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen began to serve in World War II. So when the airman began escorting bombers in Europe, many had no idea who flew the planes guarding them. That's what Roscoe Brown said in a 2015 interview.

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ROSCOE BROWN: Many people initially didn't know we were African-American.

BATES: But word of the pilots in the little P-51 Mustang planes, their tails painted bright red, began to spread. Brown, a squadron leader of the 332nd Fighter Group, became a legend when he did what many thought was impossible, says historian Craig Huntley.

CRAIG HUNTLY: Roscoe Brown is really famous, well-known for being one of the three Tuskegee Airmen jet killers.

BATES: Brown squared off against a German fighter jet and shot it down. He was the last survivor of a trio of airmen who did that. Brown flew 68 missions and would eventually be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and skill. The airmen as a group would receive the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

Brown returned to civilian life to earn a Ph.D. from NYU. He also taught there. For two decades, he was president of Bronx Community College. Then he headed the Center for Urban Education Policy at the City University of New York's Graduate Center. In his spare time, he lectured about the Tuskegee Airmen. Craig Huntley...

HUNTLY: He really, really enjoyed telling people and informing people about the Tuskegee Airmen - the role they played not just in World War II but the role they played in the civil rights movement.

BATES: Brown himself said the airmen's activism after the war, such as working to desegregate the Army, was as important as their wartime service. But as Brown once told an audience at Ford's Theater in Washington, it all began when they became Tuskegee Airmen.

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BROWN: We were able to show through our combat activities and our discipline that we were great pilots and that we could earn and did earn the respect of other pilots.

BATES: Roscoe Brown was an active part of Manhattan's civic and cultural life until his health began to fail in the past year. To the end, as he told NPR in 2012, Brown tried to live by the Tuskegee Airmen principle.

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BROWN: Excellence will overcome obstacles. Excellence was our mantra.

BATES: Flags have been lowered to half-staff in New York City in his honor. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.