The Tuskegee Airmen are celebrated today both as war heroes and as the first Black aviators in American military service. With American involvement in World War II looming, 13 men entered training at Tuskegee air field in Alabama, and five survived the rigorous training program to earn their silver wings on March 7, 1942. Among this first class of Black airmen was Hartford’s own Lemuel Custis, not only a decorated pilot but a man whose entire life was characterized by pioneering achievements.
Custis was a 1938 graduate of Howard University with a degree in mathematics and had his eyes on becoming a teacher. His father, Charles W. Custis, had served as a messenger for Aetna president Morgan Bulkeley and Bulkeley’s successor, Morgan Brainard, but when Lemuel Custis went looking for a job, he found that, thanks to persistent Jim Crow laws and social prejudice, nothing other than menial work was available. The lack of opportunity was, as Custis said in a 1989 interview with the Hartford Courant, by no means limited to the insurance community: “The banks, the school system. The big stores. You could be an elevator operator in a store but you wouldn’t be a salesperson, or a buyer.”
Custis was, however, accepted by the city of Hartford when he sought to become a policeman, and when he joined the force in the summer of 1939 – having placed in the top quarter of applicants – he became Hartford’s first Black police officer. About a year and a half into his police career, where he had been assigned to the overnight beat, a new opportunity arose. Custis was granted a three-year leave of absence to attend the first cadet class at the Air Corps Advanced Flying School at Tuskegee, Alabama. Tuskegee and similar training sites were part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program, an effort to dramatically increase skilled pilot reserves in anticipation of World War II.
The Tuskegee pilot training program was instrumental in creating space for Black cadets to prove that they were capable of flying and maintaining military aircraft at the highest levels, despite systemic obstacles and popular stereotypes. The all-Black 99th Squadron entered combat in World War II in 1943. “The general impression is that it was an experiment,” Custis later said of the program. “I think the record shows it was a successful experiment.” By the time the war ended in May 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen had flown more than 15,000 individual sorties over two years in combat, taken down 273 aircraft — 36 during aerial combat –– and destroyed nearly 1,000 rail cars and transport vehicles as well as a German destroyer . Nearly one out of every nine Tuskegee airmen were killed in action or shot down while on missions.
Charles W. Custis himself flew more than 90 combat missions in Europe and the North African theater and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal for his heroism. He continued as a flight instructor in the still-segregated military before leaving service in 1946 (the military would be desegregated in 1948, in no small part thanks to the role of the Tuskegee Airmen).
Returning to Connecticut, Custis attended the UConn School of Law for one year and ultimately decided to take a job in state government, where he spent 30 years doing tax work (he retired as a chief examiner, another first for a Black man in Connecticut). Until his death on February 24, 2005, Lemuel Custis was the last surviving airman from the initial class at Tuskegee.