Little Rock Air Force Base's collection of feature articles

Feature Search


Little Rock Remembers: Arkansas' first Tuskegee Airman

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Regina Agoha
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's note: this is the first in a series of articles that highlights the greater Little Rock area's journey to equal education, integration and civil rights' equality.)

Little Rock Air Force Base Airmen of all ethnicities and backgrounds fly together in the air, fight together on land and win together by completing the missions with integrity and professionalism. They know that race doesn't determine resilience, skin color doesn't determine skill level and cultural diversity doesn't determine dedication. No matter how different their wingman is, each Airman knows they need each other to get the job done.

It wasn't always this way. Less than 100 years ago, the military was not completely integrated, and African Americans were not allowed to perform certain jobs that whites felt they weren't good enough for, one job being, flying as a pilot.

Before there was equal education for all races, before there was equal opportunity for all races, before there were African American astronauts and presidents, before there was a Little Rock Air Force Base, there was Milton Pitts Crenchaw and the Tuskegee Airmen.

On April 3, 1939, the Public Law 18 was passed in order for the Army Air Corps to expand. The law also stated that African American colleges should create training programs for certain areas in the Air Corps support services. This law helped to prepare the African-American to be skilled at more than just the mediocre jobs.

At that time, Crenchaw, a native of Little Rock, Ark., was attending the Tuskegee Institute, founded in Tuskegee, Ala., by Booker T. Washington in 1881, where he was in the process of attaining his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. After the training program surfaced, he put his degree on hold to train and become a pilot.

There were 11 Caucasian officers assigned to train 429 enlisted men and 47 officers at the institute, including Crenchaw, who would later be called the Tuskegee Airmen. Because the military was still segregated, some of the Caucasian service members did not agree with the training, they made it known. The Tuskegee Airmen had to endure hardships of the training, as well as ridicule from racist military officials, but they kept going and succeeded.

Crenchaw became one of the original Tuskegee Airmen of 1939 and the first African American from Arkansas to be trained by the federal government as a civilian-licensed pilot. He was one of 12 Arkansas natives documented who performed different roles at the Institute. Some of those roles included flight instructor, pilot, flight officer, engineer, bombardier, navigator, radio technician, air traffic controller, parachute rigger, weather observer, medical professional, and electronic communications specialist.

From 1941 to 1946 more than 2,000 African Americans completed training at the Tuskegee Institute; more than 900 qualified as pilots. Out of that 900, approximately half went overseas and fought during the war, and four of those Airman were from Arkansas. In 1948, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the United States Military.

Throughout Crenchaw's career he donned many hats. He received his civilian pilot license and commercial pilot certificate and became a primary civilian flight instructor. He was a pilot training officer and one of the two original supervising squadron commanders at Tuskegee until 1946. Crenchaw taught aviation at Philander Smith College in Little Rock from 1947 to 1953. He was also employed by the Central Flying Service and worked as a crop-duster in the central Arkansas and Delta regions, just to name a few of his many careers.

In 1998, Crenchaw was inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame. He was honored by Governor Mike Beebe on March 27, 2007, for his efforts as a Tuskegee flight instructor and service to his country. Crenchaw, along with the other members of the Tuskegee Airmen, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush on March 29, 2007, in Washington, D.C. -The Tuskegee Airmen are the largest group to ever receive this medal. Crenchaw was also inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame on October 27, 2007.

Because of Crenchaw and the Tuskegee Airmen, all service members have a right to any job their skills qualify them for. Because of them, African Americans, Caucasians and other races can serve this country uniformed and unbiased. Because of this history, Little Rock can stand tall and say, "because of one man, we were there when history was forever changed."