Breaking Barriers: The Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen

Summary

Students will learn about the Tuskegee Airmen, segregation, and the history of integration in the United States.

Objectives

  • Students will define and describe Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the impact of racial discrimination on 20th century American society and military.
  • Students will identify and research key milestones in American history in the pre-Civil Rights era.
  • Students will explore the importance of the Tuskegee Airmen and their role in ending segregation in the military.
  • Students will use research and writing skills to create a project centered on the life of one Tuskegee Airmen.

Subject Area Connections

  • Coins & Mint
  • History & Government

Grades

  • 4th
  • 5th
  • 6th

Class Time

  • Sessions: Three
  • Session Length: 45-60 minutes
  • Total Time: 121-150 minutes

Materials

Background Knowledge

Students will have a basic knowledge of the following:

  • Discrimination
  • Equality
  • World War II
  • U.S. Military
  • Air Force

Lesson Steps

Session One

Essential Questions: What do we know about equality, Jim Crow laws, and history of race in the U.S. military? What is segregation?

  1. Show students the quarter design, including the reverse or tails side, found on the U.S. Mint's website: https://www.usmint.gov/learn/kids/library/america-the-beautiful-quarters/tuskegee-airmen-national-historic-site
  2. Explain that as part of the America the Beautiful Quarters® Program, the U.S. Mint features national parks and historical sites on quarters that are specific to a state, territory, or district. In 2021, the Alabama quarter highlights the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. The park is located in Tuskegee, Alabama at Moton Field.
  3. Ask students to guess who is featured on the coin. Explain that it is a pilot, representing all of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African American military fighter pilots in the United States Armed Forces. These pilots and the support staff that helped them fly were trained starting in 1941 as part of a test run by the U.S. military. At that time, the military did not think African Americans were capable of being pilots. Tuskegee was established as the training grounds to test whether African Americans could successfully serve as pilots. The Tuskegee National Historic Site commemorates the experiences, stories, and importance of the Tuskegee Airmen program.
  4. Explain to students that they are going to learn all about the Tuskegee Airmen, their experiences, and their contributions to military integration.
  5. Show students additional pictures of Tuskegee and the Airmen from the NPS website for Tuskegee National Historic Site: Tuskegee Airmen Virtual Exhibit (https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/tuskegee_airmen/index.html); Who Were the Tuskegee Airmen? (https://www.nps.gov/tuai/learn/historyculture/index.htm); or other online sources. Point out interesting characteristics of the photos to help guide students' thinking (i.e., what kinds of jobs did Tuskegee Airmen hold, what challenges did they face, etc.).
  6. As a warmup activity, ask students to think about what comes to mind when they hear the words "equal," "equality," or "equity.
    • If teaching in person, have students write their answers in the first box of the Tuskegee Graphic Organizer.
    • If teaching remotely, have students create their own graphic organizer in a journal or notebook using the Tuskegee Graphic Organizer as a guide.
  7. Ask the students to share what they wrote or drew. Then, as a class, complete the "What we already know about equality and segregation" section of the graphic organizer.
  8. Show the video, "Remembering the Tuskegee Airmen": https://www.doi.gov/video/remembering-tuskegee-airmen
  9. Explain that throughout American history, African Americans have fought and served honorably in the United States military, including the Revolutionary War. However, African Americans were not treated equally during military service. They were segregated into groups of all black soldiers and were only given certain jobs. Many believed they lacked qualifications for combat duty so they were unable to participate in skilled combat roles, like fighter pilots. Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military. Ask students to review the sections remaining in their Tuskegee Graphic Organizer. Tell students that the class will fill those sections in after you provide more information:
    • Because African Americans were discriminated against, they could not serve in certain roles within the U.S. military and were barred from the same opportunities that were available to their white counterparts.
    • African Americans were generally not fighting in combat, when soldiers fight on the front lines of a war or conflict. They performed support roles, like driving supply trucks.
    • Black soldiers remained separate from white soldiers in most ways. Black and white soldiers did not eat together, did not work together, and did not fight together. This kind of separation based on skin color is called segregation.
    • Soldiers were segregated in the military because in many places in the United States, all aspects of life were segregated. After the Civil War and the time right after the war, some places in the U.S. passed Jim Crow laws.
    • These Jim Crow laws allowed black and white people to be treated differently in all areas of political and social life. Children went to different schools based on their race. There were separate water fountains and bathrooms for people of different races. People of different races could not get married.
    • Groups of people fought to change these laws and started a movement known as the Civil Rights movement in the 20th century. These groups tried to change people's views on segregation and fought for equal treatment for black and white Americans.
    • Pull up related images to show signs and other scenes from life during the Jim Crow era. Explain to students that these images are real and from the time period when these laws existed:
  10. Prepare the class for an activity by asking everyone to stand up and clear space in the classroom so the group can walk around comfortably or take the class to the gymnasium, cafeteria, or outside.
    • If teaching remotely, this activity can be done using a whiteboard so set up a whiteboard and have the students practice the tools used to draw or mark on the whiteboard.
  11. Once in the right space, explain the rules of the activity to the students as follows:
    • Explain that there will be 5 rounds in the activity. At the end of the game, the class will discuss the activity together.
    • At the start of each round, the class will walk around the space to reset the activity.
    • Ask the students to walk around and continue until the teacher says what to do next. (Note for teachers: each round will consist of you asking the students to form groups based on certain characteristics or features. Then the groups will reset for the next round)
    • At the start of each round, read one of the following statements (select 5) and explain that the students should move as quickly as they can to form groups:
      • Create a group based on the shoes you are wearing.
      • Create a group based on your hairstyle.
      • Create a group based on your eye color.
      • Create a group based on your jewelry or accessories.
      • Create a group based on pants color or style.
      • Create a group based on your shirt color or style.
    • After about 15 seconds call time and have the students pause and look around at the groups. Acknowledge how students grouped together – "How did you all create this group? Did you put yourselves into a group because you are all wearing black shoes?"
    • If a student cannot find a group, that is okay. Acknowledge the lone student and get the students walking again to prepare for the next round.
    • After you have completed 5 rounds, ask the students the following questions:
      • What was the activity like for you? How did you feel while we were playing?
      • What did it feel like when you were not in a group?
      • What did it feel like when you found a group to join?
      • Did you want to be part of a group? Why or why not?
  12. Explain to the students that it can be hard to be different or to feel excluded. Encourage students to share how the activity made them feel by sharing with the class or drawing or writing on the space within the graphic organizer labelled "Activity Reflection."
    13. Ask students to think about what it was like for African Americans to feel excluded during the time of Jim Crow and to share their reflections together or in remaining space on the graphic organizer.
    14. Ask students to complete all sections of page 1 of the graphic organizer. If they need help, repeat some of the lecture points mentioned earlier in the session.
    15. Once students complete page one, explain that in the next session they will learn about people who fought against segregation and broke barriers. Explain that throughout American history, African American individuals and groups were able to achieve great things and contribute to the fight for equality, like the Tuskegee Airmen.

Session Two

Essential Questions: What key events took place during the fight for integration before the Civil Rights movement?

  1. Review with students what segregation is and the key characteristics of the Jim Crow era (e.g., daily activities and public spaces separated by race, different facilities like pools, schools, and theaters for different races, unequal conditions for white and black spaces/facilities).
  2. Re-show some of the images from the Jim Crow era to remind students of the discussion in the previous session.
  3. Ask students to review the information they wrote on the front page of the Tuskegee Graphic Organizer.
  4. Ask the students to find a partner to complete a pair-share activity.
  5. Once in pairs, ask the groups to discuss the material from session 1 using what they wrote in their graphic organizer. Assign each group one question to discuss and share out. Suggested questions are below (you can use additional questions or assign one question to multiple groups)
    • What is segregation?
    • What does equality mean to you?
    • Why is it important to treat people equally?
    • What are Jim Crow laws?
    • How were African Americans treated differently than white Americans during the time of Jim Crow laws?
    • What areas of life were impacted by segregation?
  6. Ask each group to decide which person will share out their answers to the class.
  7. Allow the groups to discuss and write down what they will share on a blank piece of paper for about 5 minutes.
    • If teaching virtually, put students into breakout groups for this discussion and ask students to write their ideas in a notebook or on a whiteboard within the breakout group.
  8. After 5 minutes has passed, ask each group to share what they wrote with the rest of the class. After each group presents, ask if students agree or disagree with the response provided. Discuss if there are different opinions.
  9. Explain to the class that they are going to continue working in pairs for another exercise. Ensure students will have the ability to research on the internet for this activity. Bring the class to the library or computer lab, or use tablets or laptops in the classroom.
    • If teaching virtually, explain to students they will be going into breakout groups or will be completing this activity on their own. Students will have to conduct internet research for this activity.
  10. Allow the class to decide if they want to work in the same pairs or switch pairs. If they would like to switch, ask the students to pair up using a method they are familiar with (e.g., count off by 2s, pair people alphabetically, seat partners).
  11. Once students are in their pairs, explain that each group will be given the name of a key event in the history of integration in the United States. Groups will have to determine the year of the event, the key people or groups involved, and write a brief summary of what happened and why it is important.
  12. Ask the groups to assign one member to be the scribe and one member to be the presenter.
  13. Explain that students will have about 25 minutes to research and document the information for their event on the History of Integration Timeline worksheet. The scribe is responsible for writing down the information the students gather about their event.
  14. Provide each group with a worksheet and assign each group one event. There may be more than one group researching the same event.
  15. Use the Timeline Teacher's Guide to see which events are listed within the timeline. Add or remove items as needed to fit the size of your class.
  16. If students need help or you would like to give them sources to get them started, share the links under each event within the Timeline Teacher's Guide.
  17. If needed, select one event to complete with the class together to model the activity to the full group.
  18. Allow students time to complete their worksheet and prepare to share back with the class.
    • If teaching in person, make sure students have completed their worksheets.
    • If teaching remotely, check on groups and individuals to make sure they have completed their worksheet.
  19. Draw a long line on the whiteboard or using a large piece of butcher paper. Create a hash mark for the number of unique events the groups are researching. If you used all of the events, you would make 16 marks on the line.
  20. Ask students to share the dates associated with their event one at a time, starting with the earliest date. Continue this process until each year has been added to create a timeline.
  21. Start with the earliest date and ask the corresponding group(s) to share the information about their event.
    • If teaching in person, take turns presenting each group's event to the class.
    • If teaching remotely, have students share their group's event virtually with the class.
  22. As each group presents, write the name of their event on the timeline. If room allows on the whiteboard or butcher paper, add the worksheet near the date.
    • If teaching remotely, create a shared document (e.g., slideshow) that can act as a digital timeline.
  23. Lead the class in a full group discussion using the following questions:
    • Which of these events have you learned about before? When / how?
    • Which of these events had you never heard of before? Why do you think that is?
    • Which event do you want to learn more about?
    • Which event seems like the most important or impactful? Why?
    • Ask students to share questions they may have about the events or people discussed during this activity.
  24. Explain to students that this timeline does not cover the Civil Rights Movement. Remind the class that the events covered in this activity built the foundation and momentum for the activism that took place in the 1950s and 1960s.
  25. Encourage students to continue to explore the events discussed in class today on their own and share the web resources from the Timeline Teacher's Guide with interested students.
  26. Share with students that in the next session they will continue to learn about one group from the timeline, the Tuskegee Airmen.

Session Three

Essential Questions: Why were Tuskegee Airmen important? What role did the Tuskegee Airmen play in integrating the military? What was the experience of individual Tuskegee Airmen?

  1. Review the content covered in sessions 1 and 2 by asking students to recall information from the previous sessions.
    • Without looking at the graphic organizer, ask students to share what segregation is or one thing they learned about Jim Crow laws.
    • Ask a handful of students to recall the person or event they researched in the session before.
    • If possible, have students to look at the Tuskegee quarters again. Ask if they remember what the images on the quarter represent.
  2. Ask students to take out the Tuskegee Graphic Organizer and flip it to the back.
    • If teaching remotely, ask students to use a sheet of notebook paper to create a page similar to the graphic organizer.
  3. Re-watch the video "Remembering the Tuskegee Airmen": https://www.doi.gov/video/remembering-tuskegee-airmen
  4. Explain to students that the class is going to review information together and ask students to fill in their graphic organizers as you provide more information. You may also want to show images of the Tuskegee Airmen while you are speaking.
  5. Remind students that the Tuskegee Airmen were formed in 1941 when the Army Air Corps program established the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Before this time, the armed forces did not believe that African Americans had the skills to serve as pilots.
  6. Tuskegee, Alabama was chosen as the site for this group for several reasons:
    •  The climate in the south was good for flying because it was sunny
    • The Tuskegee Institute was already training African American civilian pilots there
    • Jim Crow laws were in place in Alabama at that time so it would be easy to keep the African American pilots separate from the white pilots
  7. At Tuskegee, over 1,000 African American pilots were trained. But there were more than just pilots! About 15,000 other personnel were trained at Tuskegee too. They had jobs like parachute riggers, mechanics, medics, instructors, and cooks.
  8. The first phase of training took place mainly at Moton Air Field in Tuskegee. An airfield is a big open space that contains runways, a control tower, airplane hangars, and other equipment needed to operate planes. It is similar to an airport but in this case it was only for use by the military.
  9. Most of the flight instructors who taught the pilots how to fly were also African American. The most famous of the black flight instructors was Charles Anderson, called "Chief" Anderson because he was the chief pilot instructor for Tuskegee Institute.
  10. Chief Anderson took Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States, on a flight over Tuskegee in 1941. The First Lady was so impressed she convinced her husband, President Roosevelt, to support the Tuskegee Airmen in combat duty later when the U.S. entered World War II.
  11. In the spring of 1943 Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. took the 99th overseas as their commander. The squadron completed missions in North Africa, Italy, and other areas in Europe.
  12. By the end of the war in Europe, 72 Tuskegee Airmen pilots had shot down over 112 enemy airplanes. Over 100 Tuskegee Airmen were reported lost on missions, but many of them returned eventually. More than thirty Tuskegee Airmen became prisoners of war in Germany. Tuskegee Airmen earned a total of 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses and the 99th Fighter Squadron earned a total of three Distinguished Unit Citations.
  13. Overall, the Tuskegee Airmen had a successful record of service. The impact of the Tuskegee Airmen includes:
    • They helped to convince military leaders that African Americans had the ability to be great pilots.
    • When they were interacting with white pilots, they helped to show white people who had not come in contact with African Americans previously that they were just like them.
    • Their successful record helped to support integration of the military, which eventually took place in 1948.
    • Veterans of the Tuskegee Airmen went on to serve in key military roles, roles within the Civil Rights Movement, and some became politicians.
  14. However, the experience of the Tuskegee Airmen was not without challenges. There were multiple instances of injustice and unfair treatment of Tuskegee Airmen. For example, though the Tuskegee Airmen were separated from white residents and soldiers while on base, when they went off base, they were often treated poorly or with anger by white people in Tuskegee.
    • Example 1: After completing some missions escorting other aircrafts, one of the commanders of a white fighter group tried to take the 99th out of combat, claiming they performed poorly in comparison to the white squadrons. This recommendation was forwarded up the chain of command to the head of the Army Air Forces, General Henry "Hap" Arnold. The War Department launched a study comparing the performance of the 99th Fighter Squadron, under Colonel Davis, with the other units in the same area. The study concluded that the pilots of the 99th Fighter Squadron were flying as well as their white counterparts, and there was no justification to take them out of front-line combat.
    • Example 2: A group of Tuskegee Airmen were sent to serve at other airfields after they completed their training. In April 1945, at Freeman Field, Indiana at total of 120 black officers were arrested for attempting to integrate the white officers club, or for refusing to sign a regulation demanding segregated facilities. Eventually, most of the arrested people were released, but one airmen, Lieutenant Roger Terry, was fined, suffered a loss of rank, and was dishonorably discharged from the army as a result of this incident. After this incident and the national attention it attracted, the base leadership was changed. However, it was not until 1995 that all those involved had the reprimands removed by President Clinton. Terry received a full pardon, restoration of rank, and was repaid the fine.
  15. After World War II ended, the squadrons and groups that the Tuskegee Airmen were part of were inactivated. Tuskegee Army Airfield was closed in 1946. Finally, when President Harry S. Truman signed the Executive Order 9981 all of the armed forces were to become integrated. In 1949, the last all-black flying units were inactivated, bringing an end to the Tuskegee Airmen.
  16. Ask the class if they were able to complete page 2 of their graphic organizers. If not, ask students to share where they got stuck or needed help. Conduct a class discussion to help all of the students complete their organizers.
  17. Next, explain to the class that they are going to select one Tuskegee Airmen to research. They will have 20 minutes to research the airmen and write down key information within the Tuskegee Biography Template.
    • If teaching remotely, ask students to create a template on notebook paper.
    • Below is a list of Tuskegee Airmen that you can assign to students or from which they can select one:
      • Brig. General Charles McGee
      • Mildred Carter
      • Dr. Vance Marchbanks, Jr.
      • General Daniel James
      • General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
      • Charles Alfred Anderson, Sr.
      • Robert Glass
      • Willa Brown
      • Lt. Col. George Hardy
      • Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson
      • Sergeant Amelia Jones
  18. Explain that after students fill in their template, they can create a short, written biography, poster board and oral presentation, poem, or slide show about the Tuskegee Airmen's life.
  19. Provide students with guidance and ideas on how to conduct research using some of the sources provided earlier in this packet.
  20. After students complete their research template, allow them 20 minutes to complete their biography, poster, poem, or presentation. This activity can be extended or given as homework as well.
  21. Depending on what each student selects, ask that they present their biography to the class and turn in their work to you.

Differentiated Learning Options

Virtual options for remote instruction are included within the lesson steps.

Assess

  • Evaluate the research, ability to answer questions, and students' participation to assess how well the students have met the lesson objectives.
  • Evaluate student and group presentations based on the level of detail provided and ability to translate research texts into their own words or product.

Common Core Standards

National Common Core State Standards
English Language Arts (ELA)
Grade 4:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.1: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.4: Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words or phrases in a text relevant to a grade 4 topic or subject area

Grade 5:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.4: Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 5 topic or subject area.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.

Grade 6:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.2: Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.7: Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

Writing
Grade 4:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.4.7: Conduct short research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.4.8: Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; take notes and categorize information and provide a list of sources.

Grade 5:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.7: Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Grade 6:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.3: Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and refocusing the inquiry when appropriate.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources; assess the credibility of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and providing basic bibliographic information for sources.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

National Standards

This lesson plan is not associated with any National Standards.