Air Force Week kicks off in New York City

African-American History Month: African-Americans in Air Force leadership

by Tech. Sgt. Mareshah Haynes, Defense Media Activity Air Force Production
edited by Meredith March, Defense Media Activity Air Force Production

The 1950s were tumultuous years for the United States. The winds of change blew across the country and the social landscape was transformed as the Civil Rights movement went into full swing.

Air Force Week kicks off in New York City

The military, and particularly the Air Force, was at the forefront of these changes. In 1950, Air Force leaders began the service’s integration, paving the road to equality for all service members. By 1954, when the Supreme Court overturned laws permitting state-sponsored segregation, the military was almost entirely integrated.

Since the inception of the Air Force, African-Americans have been valuable team members and leaders in the world’s greatest air force.

In honor of African-American History Month, we’re highlighting three of those exemplary leaders, which include father and son generals and the first African-American chief master sergeant of the Air Force.

Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.

Retired Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. started his career at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., where he earned his bachelor’s degree and eventually became a fighter pilot in Vietnam. He led the famed flight in Operation Bolo, which led to the highest total single mission kills of the war.

Throughout his career, James proved himself as a leader in various assignments. He served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense (public affairs), the principle deputy assistant secretary of defense (public affairs), commander-in-chief for North American Aerospace Defense Command/Aerospace Defense Command, and special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff.

James was the first African-American to earn the rank of four-star general.

James retired in 1978, but his legacy didn’t end there. While he was leading Airmen in the field, there was a little Airman-in-training at home waiting to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Lt. Gen. Daniel James III

Retired Lt. Gen. Daniel James III followed his father’s example and commissioned in the Air Force in 1968. Just one year later, he found himself fighting in the same war his father fought in two years earlier. The junior James made a name for himself as a pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours and 300 combat missions in Southeast Asia.

In 2002, after serving in units in Thailand, Texas, Arizona and California, President George W. Bush nominated James to be the director of the Air National Guard. The Senate confirmed James nomination, and he became the 11th ANG director and the first African-American to hold the position.

African-Americans have also made significant leadership contributions on the enlisted side of the house. The contributions of one significant African-American leader impacts enlisted Airmen as soon as they enter basic training.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Thomas Barnes

To date, retired Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Thomas Barnes is the only African-American to hold the position of chief master sergeant of the Air Force, and was a huge proponent of professional military education for enlisted members. He believed that no one should advance in rank without PME. His work helped build the commitment the Air Force has to PME training today.

Barnes, who served as chief master sergeant of the Air Force from 1973 to 1977, didn’t set out to create equality for just African-American Airmen, but for all Airmen.

Frequently, Barnes was asked what programs he would implement for African-Americans.

“The answer was none,” he would say. “I told them I work for all blue-suiters.”

The accomplishments of Airmen like Gen. James, Lt. Gen. James and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Barnes are not just to be celebrated by African-American Airmen, but by all Airmen. These leaders showed that in the Air Force, whether you’re an officer or enlisted member, no matter your race or origin, the only barriers that can’t be overcome are the ones that lie within.

  • Need a helping HAND

    Would love to talk to a African-American Recruiter .

  • cjarrod

    Hi, please contact and it’s possible one of their recruiters will be able to assist you.