99th Pursuit Squadron at Chanute Air Field
Source: Museum of the Grand Prairie, Mahomet, Illinois
During World War II, the United States armed forces were segregated. But this didn’t stop African Americans from joining up in defense of their country.
An important piece of this story played out right here in Champaign County, with the establishment of the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron at Chanute Air Force Base in March of 1941. The 99th was the first all-black fighter squadron in the United States Army Air Corps.
The Armed Forces initiated the 99th Pursuit Squadron in order to support the small corps of African American pilots being trained at Tuskegee, Alabama. The war department called for this new group of African American air corps technical students to receive their training at Chanute.
Throughout March of 1941, over four hundred African American soldiers arrived in Rantoul to start their training. During their time at Chanute, members of the 99th were taught radio meteorology, parachute rigging, and airplane mechanics.
For these men, segregation and prejudice were a part of everyday life, both on and off the air field. They were housed separately from their white counterparts, and were not welcome at the U.S.O. facility in Champaign-Urbana. Instead, they had to attend a separate facility in the basement of the old Lawhead School, located at the corner of Fifth and Grove Streets in Champaign.
Despite these hardships, the members of the 99th “proved themselves with dignity and valor.” The first class graduated in October, 1941, and was transferred to Alabama for active duty as specialists and mechanics. The 99th Pursuit Squadron was vital in supporting the African American pilots in training at Tuskegee.
Throughout the rest of the war, African Americans continued to receive military training at Chanute.
The United States armed forces remained segregated until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman issued an Executive Order of Integration of the Army, Navy, and Air force. This action by the president ended decades of “separate and unequal” treatment of African American servicemen.
Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, March 5, 1941
Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, February 19, 2001
Through the Years: African-American History in Champaign County, Spring 1998
Through the Years: African-American History in Champaign County, Winter 1998