Lemuel R. Custis (1915 – 2005)

First Class of the Tuskegee Airmen

African Americans have served in the United States Armed Forces since the Revolutionary War.  Upon the formal development of the United States military, however, soldiers became racially segregated.  As a result, African Americans were often restricted to labor battalions and similar support positions. 

Foreseeing the possibility of the United States going to war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act in 1940.  This act not only required men between the ages of 21 and 35 to register with local draft boards but also increased job opportunities for minorities.  As a result, in July 1941, the Army Air Corps began a pilot training program for one African American flying unit in Tuskegee, Alabama.  This was the first program of its kind, and Lemuel Rodney Custis was among the group of men selected for the program.  

While African Americans may have been offered more job opportunities, the military continued to be segregated.  For instance, the flight training for white servicemen took place at the Division of Aeronautics of Tuskegee Institute while African Americans were trained at a separate facility at Tuskegee Army Air Field. 

Of the original 13 to enter the new program, only five graduated.  On March 7, 1942, Charles De Bow, Lemuel R. Custis, Benjamin O. Davis, George Roberts and Mac Ross received their wings.

This group of five became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.  While the ability of the Tuskegee Airmen was doubted by many within the military because of their race, they proved themselves to be excellent pilots and were recognized several times for their successes during wartime.

In 1947, the United States Air Force was established as a separate branch of the military.  In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which was designed to end segregation in the military.  The following year, in 1949, the Tuskegee Airmen competed in the annual All Air Force Gunnery Meet in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The men walked away with the victory.  The reputable veteran airmen had earned the respect of many and suddenly found themselves in high demand throughout the United States Air Force. 

Lemuel Rodney Custis was the last surviving member of the first Tuskegee Airmen class.  Prior to being drafted into the military, Custis earned a Bachelors of Science degree from Howard University and, in 1939, became Hartford’s first African American police officer. 

Custis flew 92 combat missions in the P‑40 while assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism.  He later returned to Tuskegee as an advanced flight instructor and was released from active military service from the U.S. Army Air Force in 1946 as a major.  He returned to Connecticut and worked in state government. 

Lemuel Custis along with other Tuskegee Airmen are credited with paving the way for other African Americans to serve in a less segregated United States military. In the 2005 Hartford Courant article A Humble Man who ‘Loved His Country,’ Tuskegee Airman Roscoe C. Brown was quoted as saying the following of Lemuel Custis: “We stood on the shoulders of that class.  If he and the four others from that class had not been successful 63 years ago, the rest of us would never have been airmen.”

Lemuel Rodney Custis died in February 2005 at the age of 89.

References:
Wikipedia. Accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_Training_and_Service_Act_of_1940 on July 22, 2010.
Tuskeegee Airmen, Inc. History. Accessed at http://www.tuskegeeairmen.org/Tuskegee_Airmen_History.html on July 22, 2010.
Wikipedia accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Air_Force on July 22, 2010.
Fillo, MaryEllen. (6 March 2005). A Humble Man who ‘Loved His Country.’ Hartford Courant, pp. B1, B3.

Photo Credit: Chanute Air Museum, Rantoul, Ill.