Flags in New York City began flying at half-staff Monday, in honor of Roscoe C. Brown. He died Saturday at age 94 and was one of the last few "Red Tail" pilots, a subset of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Airmen were part of a grand experiment in racial integration that the Army reluctantly undertook.
As a Red Tail, Brown was a pioneer. He was one of the first black pilots in the Army Air Forces. Back before Brown and his colleagues took pilot training, the common assumption among the U.S. military's higher-ups was that black people could not fly airplanes. They weren't coordinated enough, or smart enough, or brave enough, so the thinking went. To test that, the Army Air Forces agreed to provide pilot training to a select number of black men.
Brown was among them. And the training program proved so successful, the pilots were assigned to escort bombers on their runs. In the beginning, "many people didn't know we were African-American," Brown said in a 2015 interview.
But the planes flew so closely to the bombers they were protecting that sometimes crew members would look up to see a brown face nodding down at them. Eventually a lot of the bomber crews gave the pilots a nickname: Red Tail Angels.
Word began to spread about the brown pilots in the P-51 Mustang planes; their bright red tails became a reassuring sight. Especially when they had to spring into action. Brown, a squadron leader of the 332nd Fighter Group, became something of a legend, says historian Craig Huntly, when he did what many thought was impossible.
"Roscoe Brown is famous for being one of the three Tuskegee Airmen 'jet-killers,' " which is to say that Brown, in his little propeller-powered P-51 (he named it Bunnie, after his daughter) squared off with a state-of-the-art German fighter jet, and brought it down. At the time of his death, Brown was the last survivor of the troika that earned the coveted "jet-killer" moniker.
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 in belated recognition of their service.
After the war, Brown returned to civilian life and eventually earned a Ph.D. from New York University. He also taught there. In the late 1970s, Brown became president of Bronx Community College, where he'd remain for two decades. After that, he served as director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York.
Through it all, Brown always took time to travel the country, talking about the contributions the Tuskegee Airmen had made to the war effort, and the country's eventual victory. While many African-American veterans of World War II were all but forgotten, Brown and other Airmen became the antidote to that selective amnesia.
Huntly says Brown saw this as his duty, but it was also his passion: "He really, really enjoyed telling people and informing people about the Tuskegee Airmen and the role they played. Not just in World War II, but the role they played in the civil rights movement."
Brown himself often said the Airmen's activism after the war was as important as their wartime service. Having risked their lives abroad, the Airmen were determined to make their country a more equitable place. Some did that by working to desegregate the Army (and ultimately, the entire military, although it would take longer for some branches than others). Others did it by trailblazing: becoming prominent in business or politics, breaking barriers so others could follow. Brown believes the skills they learned as Airmen became the bedrock for the group's future success.
"We were able to show, through our combat activities and our discipline, that we were great pilots," he once told an audience at Washington, D.C.'s Ford's Theatre. "We could earn — and did earn — the respect of other pilots." Nonetheless, they were not allowed the route many wartime pilots took after the war was over: "The only one career that eluded them, and probably the one they really wanted, was commercial aviation," notes Huntly. "That door was closed to them." The first black pilots for commercial airlines would not be hired until 1965, when Air Force veteran Marlon Green won a lawsuit that had gone to the U.S. Supreme Court; he began flying for Continental in 1965.
The Tuskegee pilots are dying out. There are now fewer than two dozen scattered around the country. When they appear at lectures or as special guests at events, they're mobbed with requests for selfies, or photos with families, who often urge their children to shake the hands of living history.
Roscoe Brown was a good ambassador for that cause. He cut a sharp figure in his Tuskegee Airmen's blazer: slim, with high cheekbones carved into his brown face, Brown had flashing dark eyes and a wide smile that indicated his unfailing optimism. Being prepared for when one's chance came, he believed, meant success in America was possible, no matter the challenges.
"Excellence will overcome obstacles," Brown told NPR in 2012. "Excellence was our mantra."