Much has been written about the Tuskegee Airmen's wartime accomplishments, but less is known about their impact on the civil rights movement. The Airmen's feats coupled with Jackie Robinson's success with the Brooklyn Dodgers amid pressure from civil rights groups prompted President Harry S. Truman to end segregation in the military in 1948.
Joseph C. White was born in 1921 in Town Creek, Lawrence County, Alabama. His parents died early. He was raised in the 1930s in Chattanooga by his aunt, Maggie (Mrs. James) Eastman, who worked for and became assistant manager at the Martin Hotel. He developed an early interest in building and flying model airplanes. Achieving the rank of Eagle Scout, he attended the first Boy Scout Jamboree in 1937 in Washington, D.C., where he met Eleanor Roosevelt. She patted him on the back. He refused to wash the shirt he wore for days.
White enlisted in the Army in early 1943 and joined the Tuskegee, Alabama, cadet program to become a fighter pilot, where he also befriended crop scientist George Washington Carver.
Allied bomber groups during World War II sustained high casualty rates during runs over Europe and North Africa and were desperate to find effective escort fighters. Tuskegee Airmen's 332nd Fighter Group — known as the "Red Tails" because of the red paint on the tails of their aircraft — became a popular choice for those missions because of its excellent record. During his nine-month tour, Lt. White flew Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and 51 Mustangs out of the racially segregated base at Ramitelli Airfield in southeastern Italy. He said his greatest success was "not losing a single Allied Bomber to enemy fighters" as he flew assignments over North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. The Tuskegee Airmen as a group achieved markedly fewer bomber losses than other fighter units and proved that African-Americans were highly capable of maneuvering combat aircraft.
Living conditions for officers in his squadron were poor, and there were no recreational activities "structured for Negro troops." Lt. White "disliked segregation of the races most," but his experiences with the Tuskegee Airmen provided him with opportunities after the war. He returned home to work as a flight instructor at Tuskegee's Moton Field and radar and electronics instructor at Keesler Air Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Supported by the GI Bill, White was admitted to MIT. Seeking an early resumption of his education, he turned instead to Tennessee State University (TSU) for his bachelor's degree in physics and master's degrees in science education and administration, followed by a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Minnesota. While in that state, he served as director of environmental testing at Remington Rand. In 1958-1959, Dr. White came south to teach math, physics and chemistry at Chattanooga's Howard High School. He returned to Nashville, set up the state's first high school electronics program at Pearl High School in 1959 and taught science courses there for years.
During his time in TSU's graduate program, Joseph White crossed paths with follow student, Katie Kinnard, who was 10 years younger. They fell in love and married in June 1963 at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Nashville. Katie Kinnard had been taught by her parents to address her elders as "Mr." and "Mrs." and always called her husband "Mr. White." He related that "while he was fighting in World War II, she was running around the beach in pigtails." The couple had three children, Joseph Jr., Joletta and Angela.
Dr. Katie Kinnard White taught in grade schools and in high schools (primarily science and physics) in Shelbyville and Nashville, as well as at TSA, and also served as the national president of the Sigma Gamma Rho black sorority. After publication of Alex Haley's "Roots," she was instrumental in establishing the sorority's Project Africa, "Project Mwanamugimu," (Ugandan, "from small acorns come mighty oaks") to help young African-Americans appreciate and connect with their ancestral history.
In retirement Dr. Joseph White spoke to groups about his role in the Tuskegee Airmen. He died in 2007 at age 86 in Nashville and was inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall in "Recognition of his extraordinary achievement and service to aviation for Tennessee, our nation and the world and for his service to our country." Dr. Katie White, 87 years young, recently participated in Nashville's Veterans Day Parade and assisted with this article.
Jerry Summers is an attorney with Summers, Rufolo and Rodgers. Frank "Mickey" Robbins is an investment adviser with Patten and Patten. Those with memories of Joseph White should email Mickey@patteninc.com.