I was aware of Frederick Douglass Patterson’s many accomplishments during his long and distinguished career. He was the third president of Tuskegee Institute (University); founder of the United Negro College Fund; and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987.
What I didn’t know about Dr. Patterson was his personal aspiration to fly and his role in establishing an aviation program at Tuskegee.
|The Spirit of Tuskegee Institute, Frederick Douglass Patterson papers, 1882 - 1988. Anacostia Community Museum Archives.|
While serving as president of Tuskegee, Uncle Fred was able to use his position to realize his dream of flight. He established a commercial aviation program and learned to fly at an old cow pasture at the school. When WWII escalated, he saw the potential for training black pilots and met with officials at the Department of Defense to find out if the Army Air Corps was to be integrated. His idea was that if the armed services were to remain segregated, Tuskegee had the capacity to train black men to fly.
At the time, Eleanor Roosevelt was a trustee of the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, which funded black schools in the rural South. Uncle Fred invited Mrs. Roosevelt to Tuskegee to propose the construction of an airfield there. Eventually Tuskegee received funding to start pilot training at Moton Field. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and Daniel “Chappie” James were a part of the ROTC program and were among the first officers to command and train troops now known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Dr. Patterson’s interest in flight soon subsided after almost crashing his plane twice. His passion for aviation turned into an avocation until he finally stopped flying and focused his energies on building Tuskegee’s military aviation program.
Frederick Douglass Patterson isn’t mentioned often when we speak of the Tuskegee Airmen. However, I would argue it was Patterson’s aspirations to fly coupled with his belief in aviation programs to provide opportunities for trained African American pilots that paved the way for the celebrated WWII fighter pilots.
Anacostia Community Museum Archives