Lemuel R. Custis was the last surviving member of the first Tuskegee Airmen class. Before being drafted, Custis earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Howard University. In 1939, he became Hartford’s first African American police officer.
Foreseeing the possibility of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act in 1940. This act required men between the ages of 21 and 35 to register with local draft boards. It also increased opportunities for minorities.
In July 1941, the Army Air Corps began a pilot training program for an African American flying unit in Tuskegee, Alabama. This was the first program of its kind. Custis was among the group of men to enter the program.
While African Americans were offered more opportunities, the military continued to be segregated. The flight training for white servicemen took place at the Division of Aeronautics of Tuskegee Institute. African Americans were trained at a separate facility at Tuskegee Army Air Field.
Of the original 13 to enter the new program, five graduated. On March 7, 1942, Custis, Charles De Bow, Benjamin O. Davis, George Roberts, and Mac Ross received their wings. This group of five became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. They were excellent pilots and were recognized for their successes during wartime.
World War II
Custis flew 92 combat missions in the P40 while assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism. He later returned to Tuskegee as an advanced flight instructor. He left active military service in 1946 as a major. He returned to Connecticut and worked in state government.
Custis along with other Tuskegee Airmen are credited with paving the way for African Americans to serve in a less segregated military. In 2005, Tuskegee Airman Roscoe C. Brown said 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.”
To learn more about Cedar Hill’s remarkable aviators, check out our Barnstormers & Aviators video.
Section 34, Lot 192
Wikipedia. Accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_Training_and_Service_Act_of_1940
Wikipedia. Accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Air_Force
Hartford Courant. “A Humble Man who ‘Loved His Country,’” March 6, 2005
Lemuel Custis, Public Domain