It was a wet morning in 1943 at Selfridge Field, the Army Air Corps training base near Detroit where the all-black 332nd Fighter Group—the famed Tuskegee Airmen—was preparing for the war in Europe.
The airmen had company. Gordon Parks, America’s first black war correspondent, played cards with the pilots between writing assignments.
History converged on Selfridge Field that morning. Defining moments in war, civil rights and journalism all took place simultaneously—and tragically.
“Bad weather had set in and all flights were grounded,” Parks wrote later. “Five of us were playing poker when the voice came over the intercom. ‘Redbird to tower. Redbird to tower. I’m floundering. Bring me in. Over.’ It was a young pilot, Jimmy Higgins.”
Parks recalled the exchange between the controller and the frightened aviator:
“This is tower. We’re socked in here, Redbird. Try for Oscoda. Over.”
“Fuel’s gone. I’ve got to come in. Give me a bearing. Over”
“You’re too high and too far north, Redbird. Circles 60 degrees left. Let down slowly. Over.”
Moments later a whining pierced the air and the airplane crashed. Parks described seeing the body “crumpled” inside the cockpit.
The crash happened in Oscoda, Michigan but the body had to go to Detroit because there weren’t any facilities in Oscoda willing to handle a dead black man.
Lt. Tony Weaver accompanied Higgins’ remains to the Negro funeral home and described it as a “long, sad trip.” “I feel shame for having to wear this uniform,” Weaver said.
Pres. Harry Truman integrated the U.S. armed forces in 1948. But African-Americans had already fought with distinction in U.S. wars … as segregated units. Embedded with the 332nd Fighter Group, Parks witnessed firsthand the black combatants’ struggles.
You may not be familiar with Parks’ name, but you’ve probably seen his photos. Born to poor Kansas farmers in 1912, Parks became a photographer for Life magazine despite being self-educated. His best work documented poverty and the civil rights movement. His images of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King are iconic.
He did work for Vogue and, later, became Hollywood’s first black director, responsible for films including The Learning Tree and Shaft. His work as a war correspondent was the foundation for everything he accomplished later in life.
But his reporting on African-American troops ran into stiff resistance in Congress. Legislators worried Parks might “glorify” blacks. For the Tuskegee Airmen, American racism was “by far, worse than what they would have received in the countries of America’s enemies,” Parks wrote.
In 1944, a Southern congressman blocked Parks from further accompanying the 332nd. The Tuskegee Airmen went on to achieve glory without Park’s help. Flying P-51s, the 332nd completed 1,500 missions escorting bombers over Europe, losing bombers at a much lower rate than other squadrons.
Of the roughly 1,000 Tuskegee pilots, 84 died in combat or training, including Higgins.