By Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — When speaking of American history, names like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and even Davy Crockett are familiar to most. But have you heard of W.E.B. DuBois, George Washington Carver, Matthew Gaines, Colin Powell, C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson or Merryl Tengesdal?
This second group of notable people are African Americans, each contributing to the history of the United States just as the former group did, yet are not as commonly recognized. In 1976, President Gerald Ford entreated Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout history.
February is Black History Month. This time of recognition was first celebrated as an entire month in 1970 at Kent State University and officially recognized in the United States in 1976. Canada and the United Kingdom also celebrate Black History Month.
There is some controversy related to the month, with people like Morgan Freeman against a celebration of history related to a particular race. Freeman says black history is American history. But regardless of where one is on that matter, there is no denying the contributions of Americans like DuBois, the first African American to receive a degree from Harvard, Carver and his many notable inventions, Gaines and his efforts for public education in Texas, and Powell as the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State.
Even closer to the Air Force, consider pilot Eugene Jacques Bullard, famed Tuskegee Airman “ Chief” Anderson or Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal, the first black female U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft pilot. Tengesdal was a member of Team Pete for a time as a member of NORAD/NORTHCOM J8 staff.
Bullard was an American earning his living as a prize fighter in France in 1914 when World War I broke out. He joined the French Foreign Legion and eventually became the first black military pilot in history and the only black pilot in World War I. He flew combat missions as an enlisted pilot in late 1917 and is credited with shooting down a German aircraft. Bullard is recognized as a hero in France and in 1994 the U.S. Secretary of the Air Force posthumously appointed him a second lieutenant.
Black history and U.S. Air Force history became entwined in 1940 when the U.S. Army Air Corps reversed policy and accepted black flight program applicants. By 1941 black pilots were being trained at a location in Tuskegee, Ala. That group of groundbreaking Americans went on to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen, including about 1,000 pilots trained and flying roughly 15,000 sorties during World War II.
Since that time the black population in the Air Force mirrors that of the general population of the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau about 13 percent of Americans are black. Similarly, the Air Force Personnel Center counts 14 percent of all Airmen and 13 percent of civilian employees as black.
Tengesdal’s accomplishments are statistically rare for any woman. She began her career flying helicopters in the Navy. A Star Trek fan from an early age, she dreamed of becoming an astronaut. While she would not become an astronaut, she would come to often fly on the edge of space at 70,000 feet as one of only eight women to ever pilot a U-2. Tengesdal is a trailblazer: she is the only black female to ever pilot the aircraft.
“It is very uncommon, even for this day and age, to be a female pilot, much less a female minority,” Tengesdal said. “My career field is very male dominated, but I hope I have helped other females with similar aspirations to realize this is an option. I think we are all limitless as to what we can accomplish.”
(Editor’s note: Portions of this article were taken from the Department of Defense web site.)